An article for Smithsonian featuring bonobo apes took a look at their amazing ability to utilize symbols to comment on and engage in social interactions. The author of the article, Paul Raffaele, visited a 26-year-old male bonobo, named Kanzi, who is currently being housed at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. There, Raffaele learned that Kanzi communicates with American psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh via a keyboard labeled with geometric figures. When Kanzi was just learning, he was only able to use about 18 symbols; today he is up to 348 symbols has come to understand roughly 3,000 spoken English words. One example that really stuck out to me was the fact that one day, while on an outing, Kanzi pushed the symbols for 'fire' and 'marshmallows'. Once given matches and marshmallows, he went about collecting and breaking twigs, started a fire, and proceeded to roast his own marshmallow!
The crew at the Great Ape Trust complex has been working on getting Kanzi and the other bonobos to communicate vocally rather than just through the keyboard. In one experiment, they put Kanzi and his sister in separate rooms where they could hear each other but couldn't see each other. Savage-Rumbaugh told Kanzi that he would be given yogurt. In response, he verbally communicated with his sister, who communicated back, and then selected the 'yogurt' button on her keyboard. This is an amazing example of their abilities to understand, process, and convey information in order to get what they want. As our psychology book states, however, the apes have a hard time following the rules of syntax. They can understand short sentences such as "Put the soap in the water," but they are unable to form them on their own. They have no way of commenting on what is happening in the world, or divulging their emotional states.
Despite this shortcoming, the apes at the Great Ape Trust complex have such a large understanding of knowing how to get what they want that they actually live in an 18-room house. They control who enters their home, they have a vending machine they can operate to get snacks, and they can choose DVDs they wish to watch, among them The Legend of Tarzan. As Savage-Rumbaugh put it, they are definitely challenging the idea that language is only unique to humans. It is impressive, needless to say.