Iowa Ape Center Dismisses Neglect Charges Against Researcher

Back in Business. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh was reinstated at the Great Ape Trust.

Provided by Julie Gilmore, Great Ape Trust

Susan Savage-Rumbaugh has been reinstated as resident scientist at the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary after an investigation into her handling of the apes under her care.

Former employees of the sanctuary, also called the Great Ape Trust and Bonobo Hope, alleged that Savage-Rumbaugh, a pioneer in communicating with apes, was not caring for the bonobos properly. The trust placed Savage-Rumbaugh on administrative leave 2 months ago and launched an internal investigation.

Yesterday, the new executive director of the trust, Julie Gilmore, announced that the investigation has ended and that Savage-Rumbaugh is back on the job. "The committee discovered 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 found that for ten of the twelve complainants, many reported events were hearsay," she said in a statement.

The complaints spanned alleged incidents in both 2011 and 2012. But the four-person investigative committee limited its scrutiny to 2012, the period when Savage-Rumbaugh was director of the trust. It said that in December 2011 the board had dismissed the earlier complaints.

Lawyers for 11 of the 12 individuals who had complained about Savage-Rumbaugh's conduct have asked the trust's board to release documents related both to the recent internal investigation and to the earlier inquiry. "The former employees continue to suggest to the Board that an internal investigation may not be sufficient under the circumstances," said a statement from Dickey & Campbell Law Firm in Des Moines. The statement said that "an external, transparent investigation would be prudent in the wake of Panbanisha's recent death."

Panbanisha is a bonobo who died earlier this month, presumably of pneumonia. Its death fueled concerns about the well-being of the six other bonobos at the sanctuary. Gilmore, a veterinarian, says that respiratory illnesses are common in captive apes and that everything possible was done to try to save the bonobo. The other apes there have recovered, she noted.

Gilmore and the new chair of the board, Carmen Maté, research director at the Barcelona Zoo, tell ScienceInsider that they hope to put the controversy behind them and focus on fundraising. Last year, the trust lost the support of its major benefactor. The board's plans include opening its doors next year to the public for the first time and charging admission. It also hopes to resume research involving the primates.