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Great Expectations: Businessman, Native Son
Creating Ape Research Facility Near Des Moines

Dennis Magee

Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier

June 24, 2006

He [Ted Townsend] offered to build a [great ape] research facility near Des Moines. Initially, the plan was part of a larger effort to also fabricate an artificial African rain forest. For a variety of reasons, the concept switched to an artificial Amazon rain forest. Townsend has shopped that $180 to $300 million idea in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and most recently Coralville without success. "I'm committed to both of these projects," Townsend says.
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DES MOINES --- The tour offers a little time for small talk. Joyce Smith, a guest, asks Panbanisha to identify a carrot.

A sturdy finger touches the appropriate symbol on a keyboard. A computerized voice chimes in.


Other guests nod approval. Smith moves on to celery, then tomato. Each time, with speed and purpose, Panbanisha's leathery hand finds its mark.

"Can you show me a raisin?"

No response.

"Panbanisha, can you show me a raisin?" Smith repeats.

The researcher on the far side of the glass offers a suggestion: Remember the magic word.

"Maybe if you say please," the woman says. "You're in no position to order her."

"Panbanisha, can you please show me a raisin," Smith says.

The response comes quickly and easily.


A suggestion about etiquette offered earlier in the morning begins to make sense: Take note that the apes can understand English and speak respectfully.

Panbanisha is a bonobo, one of four great ape species. The others are gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. Her kind are native to the Congo in Africa, but Panbanisha was born at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University. Recently, she moved to Des Moines and the Great Ape Trust of Iowa.

The research facility occupies a portion of 230 acres on what was once a quarry about five miles southeast of the Capitol. The campus features a 30-acre lake, fences topped with barbed wire and security guards monitoring automated gates. The marketing effort includes hats, refrigerator magnets, hard-cover journals with blank pages and as of this month, guided tours.

There are also world-class scientists, three orangutans and eight bonobos. Gorillas and chimpanzees will be added in years to come along with more buildings and research facilities.

The apes' living quarters feature a waterfall they control and places to create chalk drawings. Some of the exterior concrete pads are heated, and interiors offer a variety of levels so that primates can bed down "depending on their social preferences," according to a video presented prior to tours.

"Ample enrichment opportunities" for the bonobos and orangutans include tangles of retired fire hose dangling in enclosures. Two years ago, the Evansdale Fire Department supplied about 300 feet.

The amenities are all part of the Great Ape Trust's overall ambition to provide "a dignified future and an honorable home."

Panbanisha is half sister to Kanzi, frequently referred to as "the world-famous Kanzi." Both learned to communicate by growing up in "a culture of language," researchers say.

Smith, the guest, toured recently with other members of the RaySociety, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Drake University and named for former Gov. Robert Ray and his wife, Billie. As a retired high school English and reading teacher, Smith was impressed with Kanzi and Panbanisha.

"It's remarkable how much communication you actually feel," Smith says. " ... I just felt there was a process going on in his and her heads."

Kanzi knows more than 400 symbols ranging from concepts --- like get, put and want --- to objects --- like microwave, milk and bunny. Panbanisha is described as even more advanced, probably because she began using the computerized keyboard earlier in life. She participates in studies that would make a college student proud --- linguistic communications, dialogue analysis and vocal communications, according to the trust's Web site.

"The apes are reversing the brain drain in Iowa," says Al Setka, the trust's communications director. And researchers living here or visiting are raising the state's scientific IQ, too, he adds.

Native sons

Even diehards --- as proud as any of their state --- puzzle over the apparent incongruity of researching great apes where tall corn grows and hogs outnumber people. "Why Iowa?" is a frequently asked question.

The answer: meat processing equipment.

In 1946, Ray Townsend built a machine he called the Townsend Model 27 Pork Skinner. He followed that innovation over the years with an automatic skinner, a pork belly skinner, a conveyorized skinner, a sausage linker, a continuous casing system and other devices for turning carcasses into meals. As evidence of the company's reach consider this: Virtually every hot dog in America is produced by one of Townsend's machines.

Ray Townsend also had a son.

Ted Townsend eventually took over the company, traveling the globe to manage the multimillion dollar business. But he kept his and the company's base in Des Moines. He and Townsend Engineering prospered.

"I am a blessed man. In many ways," Ted Townsend says.

Trips to Africa, in particular, left a mark on the businessman.

"I went and was stunned," he says.

By the magnificence of the apes he encountered, including mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda, and by the tremendous likelihood all face extinction from the natural world within his lifetime.

A book fueled Townsend's passion for primates and offered an intriguing footnote about a famous researcher of apes' cognitive abilities. "The Monkey Wars," written by Deborah Blum, mentioned in passing that Duane Rumbaugh is a native of Iowa.

"I just picked up the telephone and called him cold," Townsend says.

Rumbaugh was born in 1929 in Maynard when his father, Arthur, was a student at Upper Iowa University. The family moved from Fayette County, and Rumbaugh graduated from Ackley High School and later the University of Dubuque.

He got a doctoral degree at the University of Colorado, intending early on to become a clinical psychologist. Instead, he turned to experimental research, starting with rats. He advanced to primates after receiving a commission from the U.S. Navy in the 1950s.

"Well they don't have any great apes in Maynard, so I had to leave," Rumbaugh, 77, says.

"The population when I was there was a little over 500. And today, it's about 500."

His only real memories of his birthplace are recent. Not long ago he returned to serve as grand marshal of a community celebration.

"I always liked the name of the town."

Power trip

Townsend flew to Atlanta, where he met Rumbaugh and a thirsty bonobo.

"Kanzi ... wants ... grape ... juice," the ape tapped out on his keyboard.

Townsend delivered the treat.

"Thank you," Kanzi added.

"That got my attention," Townsend says.

The successful businessman, ardent conservationist and millionaire turned pirate. He offered to build a research facility near Des Moines. Initially, the plan was part of a larger effort to also fabricate an artificial African rain forest.

For a variety of reasons, the concept switched to an artificial Amazon rain forest. Townsend has shopped that $180 to $300 million idea in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and most recently Coralville without success.

"I'm committed to both of these projects," Townsend says.

As the Great Ape Trust formed, Townsend lured away the heart of Georgia State's research team --- Duane Rumbaugh and his ex-wife, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh --- and some of the college's star ape population, including Kanzi and Panbanisha. To date, he has dropped about $20 million on the ape project.

"Science isn't cheap," he says.

Townsend never considered any other place for his dream.

"If there was ever an Iowa son who is dedicated to his state, it's Ted," Rumbaugh says.

The country's midsection works equally well as either coast for large ideas.

"The only challenging thing about being in Iowa is the question, 'Why Iowa?'" Townsend says. "The state has no history of doing anything like this."

Rumbaugh, however, does. He has researched primates' capacity for learning and language for nearly 50 years and is widely regarded as a leading authority on the subject.

"That term --- pioneer --- gets thrown out rather loosely. But he truly is," Setka says.

Setka, another native of Northeast Iowa, grew up in Riceville and explains Rumbaugh's stature simply.

"He's the real deal."

With an intense belief more should be done to protect apes, the planet --- and by extension --- humans.

Rumbaugh shares the view with Townsend.

"We are consuming this planet is what it comes down to," Rumbaugh says. "And the planet cannot take it."

As tour guides review threats to apes in declining habitats around the world, Rumbaugh chimes in at the mention of bushmeat. Because of necessity or superstition, local populations in some developing nations eat apes.

"They really are not that far apart from us genetically," Rumbaugh says. " ... It smacks of cannibalism."

Rumbaugh returns to the concept later in the conversation with the visitors as they marvel over the bonobos' and orangutans' abilities: Sometimes the perspective on which side of the glass to remain is difficult to distinguish.

"Those who work with the apes on a daily basis develop a blurred line of who is who," Rumbaugh says.

During a demonstration for the RaySociety guests, Kanzi is distracted. He blows a few soap bubbles and gets into a tickle fight with a researcher, who is trying to impress. Then Kanzi asks for some specialized ape attention.


The researcher denies the request.

"No ... groom ... now ... We ... are talking to ... visitors."

Contact Dennis Magee at (319) 291-1451 or

Go & do:

The Great Ape Trust in Iowa began offering tours this month at its research facility near Des Moines. Free guided tours take two hours and will be available through Sept. 7 for organized groups, families and individuals.

Because of the advanced nature of the experience, Great Ape Trust requires visitors be at least 10 years old. For groups with young people less than 15, the facility requires one supervisor for every two children.

Tours are offered from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday and Thursday. Tour requests are only accepted online. Submitting a request does not guarantee enrollment. Space is limited to 30 people per tour. Other restrictions apply.

The Web site is at

To learn more about Ted Townsend's dream of building a rain forest in Iowa, visit