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Endangered Ape Dies Before Historic Surgery

Megan Hawkins

Des Moines Register

July 8, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

An endangered African ape who was part of a nationally recognized Des Moines research center died Friday on his way to what was to have been historic surgery for a human-like hernia.

P-Suke, a 27-year-old male bonobo and father of four, died at 11:55 a.m. while awaiting an operation on an inguinal hernia, the first surgery of its kind on a bonobo patient. The condition is fairly common in humans, but the cause of P-Suke's condition was never determined.

P-Suke (pronounced peace-kay) lived at Great Ape Trust of Iowa on the city's south side for just more than a year.

The man who brought the center to Des Moines mourned the ape's death.

"We had expected to share the results of a medical procedure unique in the history of the world," said businessman Ted Townsend, founder of the ape trust. "Unfortunately, we must report a great sadness. We don't know all the details of why quite yet. We will find them all and report them to the world."

A necropsy was planned at Iowa State University's veterinary school.
Researchers and employees at the center laid wildflowers in the lobby of the bonobo building Friday and said their goodbyes. Bonobos on the other side of the glass responded with long silences and loud cries, said researcher Duane Rumbaugh.

Rumbaugh helped bring P-Suke, which means "little gentleman," to the United States from Japan, and knew him as well as any other researcher, Townsend said. Rumbaugh said P-Suke grew up away from other bonobos but eventually became a leader in his group.

"He should not have been able to learn what he did, in my view," Rumbaugh said. "He didn't really know much about being a bonobo. He was very withdrawn, he was shy when others were around, he would sometimes stomp his feet."

Rumbaugh said P-Suke was born wild in the Congo in 1979. From there, he went to Luxembourg, then to Japan where he grew up in a traveling carnival. Officials from the Japan Monkey Centre discovered him and took him to live at their facility. He was about 12 years old when he was taken to the Language Research Center at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

The surgery planned for Friday was a collaborative effort among veterinarians, a surgical team that usually works on humans, and Des Moines University.

About P-Suke

BORN: Wild, in the Congo.
SIZE: P-Suke was about 4 feet, 8 inches tall and 125 pounds.
TRAVELS: He lived in Japan before he joined the Language Research Center at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He arrived in Iowa in May 2005.
FAMILY: P-Suke fathered four of the young bonobos who live in Iowa: Elikya, Nathan, Nyota and Maisha. His four children make up nearly 3 percent of the worldwide captive bonobo population.
PERSONALITY: P-Suke was described as protective and tolerant of his young bonobos, and was a leader in the group. Researchers said he was friendly with other bonobos and scientists.
FAVORITES: P-Suke's favorite food was juice, his favorite game was chase, and his favorite toy was a washcloth.

About bonobos
Bonobos, once known as pygmy chimpanzees, are an endangered species of great ape found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. It is estimated that only between 10,000 and 50,000 bonobos are alive in the wild, and 150 live in captivity worldwide, about 75 of them in the United States. Eight live in Des Moines at Great Ape Trust of Iowa.

Learn more
For more information on bonobos, visit
For information on P-Suke, go to Meet P-Suke.
For an archive of stories, video of Indah and an animated overview of the center, visit

Staff members at Great Ape Trust discovered an egg-sized lump on the ape's abdomen about five weeks ago. They said P-Suke had shown no signs of discomfort, but veterinarians recommended the surgery to prevent further problems.

Doctors put P-Suke under anesthesia at Great Ape Trust about 10:30 a.m. Friday. Officials said he was then driven less than two miles to Avondale Animal Clinic, 4318 Army Post Road, for dental X-rays, which were completed at 11:15 a.m. But they then noticed his blood pressure and heart rate dropping more than they should, and instead of heading for surgery, he was returned to the research facility near Easter Lake, where he died.

P-Suke's tissue samples and organs will be donated for scientific research, facility officials said.

Bonobos can live up to 60 years, officials said.

P-Suke is the father of four of the seven bonobos that remain at the Great Ape Trust: Elikya, Nyota, Nathan and Maisha. Rumbaugh said the bonobos will most certainly notice P-Suke's absence and will likely search for a while.

The bonobo's death is the second blow to the Des Moines research center in less than two years.

Indah, a 24-year-old orangutan, died in November 2004, six weeks after she was moved to Des Moines from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Veterinarians euthanized the ape at ISU after they discovered a terminal intestinal condition.

Townsend's facility is billed as the only one in the United States to do language and cognitive research on all four types of great apes: orangutans, bonobos, gorillas and chimpanzees.

"It was here at the Great Ape Trust that P-Suke really matured," Rumbaugh said. "His primary legacy is the fact that he's fathered four fine bonobo infants, one female and three males. P-Suke leaves a huge void in the bonobo home. He was a very fine individual."