This Ape Can Play Minecraft

Seven of the least-studied great apes live in Des Moines where researchers look at how bonobos behave and communicate with one another and with humans.

43-year-old Kanzi points at a lexigram to request specific foods, activities, and more.

Ice, lettuce, and sunflower seeds. Those are the three symbols the 43-year-old bonobo, Kanzi, points to on the lexigram, a system where a symbol is attributed to a specific word, hanging on the inside of his enclosure. He looks at me through the glass, causing me to shiver for a second, before he turns to one of his caretakers, and points again: ice, lettuce, and sunflower seeds. 

“You just ate, Kanzi,” says Amanda Epping, director of the non-profit Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative (ACCI).

I went into the experience with a fear of monkeys and apes. They always creeped me out. Their humanoid aspects seemed to fall somewhere in the uncanny valley—the idea that as something approaches human likeness, a person’s affinity for that object decreases until true human likeness is ultimately reached. Think cartoon Tom Hanks in The Polar Express or any de-aging CGI. And apes. Basically, I was disturbed by the fact that apes seemed so similar to humans but were still clearly different enough from us. Videos of chimps putting on clothes made me cringe. That little backpack-wearing, bottle-drinking monkey on TikTok? An immediate scroll past every time it popped up on my For You Page. So it was only natural that I was uncomfortable staring into the eyes of a 43-year-old bonobo asking for lettuce.

Kanzi points again. This time he asks for juice, in addition to his various other requests. Epping obliges. Mango juice and sunflower seeds for the ape. Because this isn’t a zoo—it’s the only bonobo research facility in the world, smack-dab in the center of the Midwest, in Des Moines. And, evidently, it’s snack time. 

All on the bonobos’ time

Just a few miles southeast of the Iowa state capitol building lies the 230-acre ACCI, home to seven bonobos. Of the four species of great apes—bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans—bonobos are widely considered the least understood and researched.

“Not only are they our closest living relatives, we’re their closest living relatives,” says Sara Skiba, ACCI communications director. “So, bonobos and chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to any other animal on the planet.”

And just how similar are these apes to us humans? We share a staggering 98.7% of their DNA. Like I said: the uncanny valley.

Scientists from around the world come to Des Moines to do research on the bonobos. But rather than operating like a typical animal research facility, forcing animals to be lab rats, at the ACCI, bonobos have the option to participate in the research conducted. The apes get a say. 

“Everything we do is on the bonobos’ time and is up to what they’re feeling on a given day,” Skiba says. “What our staff works on throughout the day is reading the bonobos’ behavior, giving them opportunities to choose to change enclosures or change groups or select what food they’re getting. All are ways to promote their individual welfare.”

Planet of the (endangered) apes

To many, Des Moines may seem like an odd place for seven highly endangered great apes. After all, in the wild, bonobos only exist in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And in the U.S., there are fewer than 90 bonobos in captivity.

The reason the ACCI is located in Des Moines is all thanks to a rich white guy, Ted Townsend. A local philanthropist, Townsend funded what he called the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines in 2005.

“He had big dreams of putting Des Moines on the map as a research center,” Epping says.

Back then, the trust seemed to focus much more on trying to see how close the bonobos could get to becoming humans. In fact, it was the intention of one of the former researchers to raise Teco, the youngest bonobo currently at ACCI, as a human child. It would’ve been like a real-life  Planet of the Apes. But now, that’s changed.

“As a whole, I feel like the field has sort of shifted away from, ‘What can we teach them to do?’ to, ‘What are they doing on their own?’” Epping says. “And then, ‘What does that tell us about them and ourselves?’”

Unfortunately, Townsend eventually withdrew funding in 2011 and the organization underwent a period of turmoil, during which the bonobos’ care was neglected. In 2013, two leading primatologists, Jared Taglialatela and William Hopkins, formed the ACCI. Now, it’s largely funded by the researchers who visit from outside institutions to study the bonobos. 

Besides being among the first Iowans to be vaccinated against COVID-19, playing Minecraft (and beating the Ender Dragon), and entertaining Anderson Cooper, the bonobos at ACCI continue to give us clues about our common ancestor. Researchers look at how bonobos interact and communicate with one another as well as their human caretakers.

“[We can use] the bonobo as a model for understanding human differences in social communication and behavior,” Skiba says. “They’re so much like us, but we also can study a lot of the components of their day-to-day lives without a lot of the interference that happens to us as humans.”

 Kanzi is the oldest bonobo at ACCI and has even been featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine.

By trying to understand how these particular apes communicate, we may unlock the key to the origins of human language. Kanzi, the oldest bonobo at ACCI, has the strongest grasp on human language. He understands thousands of words through lexigram symbols. And when he doesn’t know the word for something, he’ll combine words he already knows to try to describe it. While bonobos don’t have the ability to vocalize, Kanzi is world-renowned for his lexagram abilities.

“There’s so much we can learn about bonobos and about our last common ancestor,” Epping says. “We know if a chimp is doing something, a bonobo is doing something, and a human is doing something, our last common ancestor was probably doing that, too.”

And even though bonobo research has been going on for years, there’s still more to learn.

“We haven’t done the species justice in terms of learning about them and sharing what we learn about them,” Skiba says.

Protecting the future of the species 

In order to continue researching these apes, it’s vital to keep their population alive. Up until recently, bonobos had a species survival plan (SSP), as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. An SSP exists to help conserve genetically diverse populations of endangered species that live in captivity. In 2023, the SSP rules changed. Now for a species to qualify, they must exist in at least 15 facilities in the U.S., effectively disqualifying the bonobos. That’s why the ACCI started an active, ongoing artificial insemination research program.

“We’re working on finding out if that’s possible, because a lot of the times we move animals [for breeding], they get moved across the country or sometimes across the world,” Epping says. “If we can find a way to [make artificial insemination happen], that might be less stressful for the animal, while diversifying the genetics and the captive population. That would be really worthwhile.”

Part of the other conservation efforts of the organization include helping foster a connection between people and bonobos.

“The more connected you feel, the more likely you are to support some of the conservation efforts in the wild,” Epping says.

To do this, ACCI has several partnerships with undergraduate students from local universities and with elementary schools in the Des Moines metro. They learn about bonobos, the conservation efforts, and how the ACCI’s research relates back to the students, Epping says.

Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a full-on ape enthusiast after my encounter with the bonobos, I find myself captivated by the work ACCI does. If a 43-year-old bonobo can beat Minecraft, who’s to say what else these apes can do to help us humans better understand ourselves and our place in the world?

“They’re a window into what’s going on in human language and behavior,” Skiba says.

But as they stay endangered in the wild and their numbers dwindle in captivity, the work of places like ACCI remains of utmost importance to keeping that window open.


  • Nate Eisenmann

    As an associate editor for Urban Plains, I get to see stories early on in the process and work closely with writers. I have previous publication experience as managing editor for Drake Mag, where I am now editor-in-chief. I’m passionate about writing stories about science, whether it’s climate change, healthcare, or tech. A fun fact is that I’ve been playing the viola for 10 years.

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