Bonobos at the Safari Park

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A bonobo is ready for action...

We walk quietly through the trees, gently stepping on the leaves, trying to keep our footfalls soft so as not to disturb the amazing beings we are about to encounter. We’re holding our breath in anticipation as we approach a clearing with fallen logs and look beyond a ravine to see them. The black apes come running toward us, one sliding down the hill toboggan-style while another puts her head between her legs and makes faces at us. Is this a safari in the African forest? Close! It’s a behind-the-scenes encounter with the bonobos at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park!

What’s a bonobo? If you guessed that they are a primate species and the most closely related animal to humans, then you are right! Native to the Democratic Republic of Congo, this endangered species shares over 98 percent of its DNA with humans!

...or people-watching!

Here at the Safari Park, we are lucky enough to have a proud troop of six bonobos, led by Loretta. At 37 years young, Loretta serves as the leader and disciplinarian in this female-run society. She is a great mom and very protective of her children. She still has two of her five children living with her here at the Park. Her son Erin, who is almost 20, is very spoiled and loves to be the center of attention. Even though he is an adult, he is still a kid at heart and can often be seen playing around with his six-year-old half-sister, Kalli. Much like human children, Kalli loves to climb and jump and is very curious.

Twenty-eight year-old Connie-Lenore, or just Lenore as we call her, is the politically correct member of the troop; she has no scruples and will side with whoever has the better situation. Recently, two new members were introduced to the troop: Ikela, born in 1991 and came to the Park from the San Diego Zoo, and her adopted son Tutapenda (Tut). While not her biological child, Tut was one of two babies hand raised at the Zoo. When he and the other baby were reintroduced to the troop, the two moms switched babies, and each raised the other’s baby as their own. Despite being the newest members, Ikela and Tut were immediately welcomed into the Safari Park’s troop.

Our bonobos enjoy sharing meals consisting of bananas, apples, oranges, grapes, turnips, carrots, yams, spinach, and broccoli. Unlike humans, they also dine on clippings from ficus trees and leaves from honeysuckle, hibiscus, and sugarcane. They enjoy the occasional insect they find while exploring their enclosure. As a special treat, they might receive popcorn, nuts, or seeds.

If you are a frequent visitor or a member, I’m sure you are wondering why you haven’t noticed these 100-plus-pound primates on recent visits to the Park. Because they are so large and active, they require a large, open enclosure for their activities. This enclosure is not in an area accessible by the general public and can only be visited by taking a Behind-the-Scenes Safari called Cats & Critters. A knowledgeable guide (like me!) can take you to an exclusive viewing area where you can see the bonobos up close, playing with their enrichment items, interacting with each other, or just enjoying the fresh air. Erin might even run over to say hello. Other Behind-the-Scenes Safari tours can take you “backstage” at Lion Camp, tigers, cheetahs, elephants, and more, depending upon which theme you choose. Every Behind-the-Scenes Safari has a special surprise in store for you!

The amazing Behind-the-Scene Safari tours are two-hour experiences, offered daily and available to guests ages three years and older. The Cats & Critters theme tour, during which you’ll see our amazing bonobos, is offered daily, 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.

Here’s more info about Behind-the-Scenes Safari…
Or call 619-718-3000.

Marianne Horstman is an exhibit attendant at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.