Author Sara Gruen visits Glendon’s Bonobo-Human Discourse research group

Bestselling author Sara Gruen had been on a gruelling book tour, talking about her newly published novel, Ape House, when she arrived in Toronto for the International Festival of Authors in early November and made a return visit to Glendon’s Bonobo-Human Discourse research group. It was a chance for Gruen to reconnect with York senior scholars Jim Benson and Bill Greaves of Glendon’s departments of English and linguistic studies, the primary researchers of the project, as well as the students working under their direction.

Gruen first came to Glendon four years ago to do background research for Ape House in preparation for an in-depth study at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. “When I left your office, although I went to the bus stop, what I really wanted to do was head for the enrolment office,” wrote Gruen in her thank-you note to the two professors.

This year’s Glendon stop felt like a visit among friends, as well as a scientific study. “Sara and our students spent several hours talking about their experiences meeting Panbanisha, Kanzi and the other bonobos at the Great Ape Trust,” says Greaves. “We have all learned a lot from Sara, and she received additional information from us acquainting her with some of the archival videos that we showed her. It was a level playing field and a great conversation.”

   Above: From left, student researchers Charlotte Petrie, Meng Yang and Maria
Wong, author Sara Gruen and student Laura Guecha

A New York Times bestseller, Ape House addresses the idea that bonobos, reared in a culture where spoken language and symbolic representation are the norm, acquire language the same way human children do, by being exposed to it. “The result is that Gruen’s novel helps establish, in an easily accessible and entertaining manner, a multi-faceted picture of culture among great apes and other sentient beings,” says ape language pioneer Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, scientist with special standing at the Great Ape Trust, in an article reviewing the importance of the book.

Funded by the Research at York program for the past two years, the Glendon Bonobo-Human Discourse (BHD) research project is now in its sixth year with the participation of student researchers Bruce Anderson, Charlotte Petrie, Maria Wong, Jenny Teplitsky, Meng Yang, Laura Guecha, Cadence Lavoie and Ashley Thomas, under the supervision of Benson and Greaves. The BHD team has been exploring the ability of Kanzi and Panbanisha, two bonobos at the Great Ape Trust, to actively participate in discourse with Savage-Rumbaugh and other caregivers, using a variety of social semiotic systems.

When Gruen contacted her in 2006, Savage-Rumbaugh directed her to Benson and Greaves with whom Savage-Rumbaugh has been collaborating in bonobo language research for a number of years. Because of this contact, Gruen received a warm invitation from the two professors for a Glendon visit to learn about apes. Her account of her subsequent visit to the Great Ape Trust is recorded on video.

The research team says Gruen has an amazing connection with the bonobos. “Normally, when we show other people video clips of the bonobos, it is always followed by a briefing on the video and an explanation of why we extracted it,” says Wong. “But for Sara, we didn’t have to explain anything. She got it immediately.”

Co-organized with the Glendon Linguistics Club, Professors Benson and Greaves and the Glendon Bonobo-Human Discourse research project’s student participants will make a presentation about the progress of their work on Wednesday, Dec. 1, at 6pm in Glendon Hall’s BMO Centre, Glendon campus. The presentation is part of this fall’s lectures under the aegis of Glendon’s Centre for Research on Language Contact. Everyone is welcome.

Submitted by Marika Kemeny, Glendon communications officer