A troubled ape research facility in Des Moines, Iowa, has elected to reinstate a controversial scientist who has come under fire for allegedly putting the resident bonobos in harm’s way. The decision has elicited grave concerns from outside primatologists.

This past September, the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary (IPLS) placed then executive director and senior scientist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh—a pioneer in ape communication studies—on administrative leave following allegations by a group of 12 former center employees that Savage-Rumbaugh put the apes at risk for disease and injury and is mentally unfit to run the facility and care for them. The whistleblowers, known as the “Bonobo 12” allege that Savage-Rumbaugh allowed incestuous copulations between apes that had led to an unauthorized pregnancy (and subsequent miscarriage), forgot where she left the apes, locked the apes outside without access to water for hours at a time, and exposed the animals—including the infant bonobo Teco--to people who did not have proper vaccinations, among other instances of dangerous behavior.

The center’s board of directors announced that it would conduct an internal investigation into the claims. The center was already struggling financially and in the past year had warned more than once that it would have to close its doors if emergency fundraising efforts did not pan out.

The turmoil at the IPLS, also known as the Great Ape Trust and Bonobo Hope, intensified on November 6 when one of the seven bonobos at the facility--an adult female named Panbanisha who was known for her ability to communicate with humans using symbols—died from a respiratory illness. The center immediately launched a fundraising campaign in memoriam, to raise money for a visitor center and visitor programs.

The events prompted outside primatologist Barbara King of William and Mary, who has spent time with some of the bonobos now housed at IPLS and interacted with Savage-Rumbaugh, to write a letter to a member of the IPLS board expressing her concerns about Rumbaugh’s management of the bonobos and urging the board to take actions to protect the apes. “They need either immediate supervision by qualified scientists and veterinarians who are in no way linked to or under the supervision of Sue, or they need relocation to another facility able to adequately care for them,” King asserted in the letter. “I don’t say these things lightly. I have spent my professional life studying the depth of social bonds and emotions among apes…and I know that one of these steps should only be taken in a crisis. I believe that crisis is at hand.”

King’s recommendations went unheeded, however. The board convened November 13 to evaluate the results of its internal investigation into the Bonobo 12’s allegations against Savage-Rumbaugh. In a statement released to the press November 20, the IPLS reported that its internal investigation committee “found that the bonobos are well cared for and was unable to substantiate the allegations against Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh, in part because they encountered significant counterevidence against the claims.” The committee apparently limited the scope of its investigation to the period spanning January 2012 to October 2012, during which Savage-Rumbaugh held the post of director. According to the press release, earlier allegations were dismissed by a subcommittee in December of 2011 as "baseless and unsubstantiated." The board accepted the investigation committee’s recommendation to reinstate Savage-Rumbaugh as resident scientist and elected veterinarian Julie Gilmore, who treated Panbanisha, to the post of executive director “to enfold the research in a constant mantle of veterinary guidance and oversight.” Gilmore, who also works at a local veterinary practice, specializes in dogs and cats.

When I asked King about her reaction to the board’s decision, she replied:

“Knowing personally the integrity and credibility of two of the Bonobo 12 whistleblowers, I stand with them and, on behalf of the bonobos who have survived Panbanisha, am disappointed at the result of the ‘internal investigation.’ I don't find it as easy to dismiss the documented concerns of the Bonobo 12 as those who voted on these matters. I have many questions, among them these: Was the vote of the Board unanimous? Where is the public documentation that the earlier, detailed claims of the Bonobo 12 were investigated last year? Has the Board responded in some substantive way to the observations and evidence that the young bonobo Teco was exposed to risks for transmission of respiratory illness? If the opinion of the current caretakers and other staff were used as evidence in this investigation, what is the experience level of these workers in terms of ape physical and psychological welfare, given that so many previous staff members resigned in concern for that welfare? Is it best practice to appoint a person who is no doubt a highly qualified small-animal veterinarian to a position of great responsibility (Executive Director) involving the physical and psychological well-being of great apes? I am only one in a network of primatologists and other scientists who have questions of this nature, and who have reason to believe that the Bonobo 12 will certainly face legal threats if they continue to speak out. The bonobos deserve that hard questions get asked; they also deserve a proper, external investigation into the Bonobo 12's observations and evidence.”

King additionally pointed out that in an email to IPLS staff last December, at which point tensions between Savage-Rumbaugh and the staff were already running high, then chairman Kenneth Schweller emphasized that Savage-Rumbaugh was essential to fundraising efforts and that “the only way to raise a lot of money in a short time is SUE.” (In 2011 Savage-Rumbaugh was named to Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.) Given that email, King says, “it’s entirely reasonable to wonder, to what extent does Savage-Rumbaugh’s ability to pull in funds remain a primary factor in the board’s eyes, vis-à-vis its new decision to exonerate her?”

Other primatologists expressed concerns about the board’s November 20 announcement, too. Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University, a chimpanzee expert who served briefly on the IPLS board in 2011, remarks “I was happy with the physical setup of IPLS, but the operation has been fraught with so many problems over the years, I view it as a lost cause for Iowa.” Pruetz contends that, among other things, the center needs stricter standard operating procedures. Pointing to reports that Savage-Rumbaugh took infant bonobo Teco off grounds, exposing him to people without proper vaccination, Pruetz notes that there are protocols in place at “almost all if not all facilities that house apes [and] have any sort of oversight. These would include getting TB tests, not exposing apes to sick humans,” and generally minimizing ape exposure to non-facility personnel.

Meanwhile, 11 members of the Bonobo 12 furnished a press release of their own via their lawyer that stated:

“The former employees continue to suggest to the Board that an internal investigation may not be sufficient under the circumstances, and that an external, transparent investigation would be prudent in the wake of Panbanisha’s recent death.

The former employees of IPLS are, and always have been, committed solely to the welfare of the bonobos at the Sanctuary. “Bonobos are a unique and prized endangered species and the individual bonobos at the Sanctuary are at the forefront of language research in non-human apes. The Great Ape Trust should come forward with all information it has regarding the death of Panbanisha, and the current health of the remaining bonobos,” stated Dr. Janni Pedersen, an assistant professor of anthropology who did her dissertation research while at the Great Ape Trust. “External, independent, and transparent investigations bring with them a level of credibility and reliability that secret, internal investigations do not. We encourage transparency in this process for the protection of the bonobos,” said Daniel Musgrave, a former caretaker, research assistant and education coordinator at IPLS who obtained his master’s degree in biological anthropology while doing independent research at the facility.”

Savage-Rumbaugh could not be reached for comment. For her part, Gilmore says that final results of the necropsy that was conducted on Panbanisha are pending but that the preliminary results indicate that she died of pneumonia. She further notes that the other bonobos that had apparently contracted the same illness have all recovered from it. Responding to criticisms about the allocation of funds to a visitor center and visitor programs, Gilmore remarks:

“The apes are well cared for presently, a claim that has been substantiated recently by an intensive internal audit and by repeated exhaustive inspections by the USDA. They do not lack for excellent care, medically or otherwise. In fact, their well-being is the number one priority of IPLS, both now and in the past. We feel that using funds for a visitor’s center and visitor programs is the best way we can honor our beloved Panbanisha’s memory. Sharing her abilities with the public and educating the public about the priceless individual she was, in addition to allowing the public to know the other bonobos, will allow us to raise public awareness about this special species and help us as humans better understand ourselves. We believe that Panbanisha would want her legacy to live on this way. She was in every way, a poignant and graceful ambassador.”