D.M. bonobos soon will get experimental COVID-19 vaccine

By: - July 8, 2021 4:02 pm
Bonobo gets a "tummy rub" through a glass window from a woman who put her hand on the glass over the ape's middle at the Ape Initiative in Des Moines.

One of the newest bonobos at the Des Moines-based Ape Initiative, Clara, asked for and received a “tummy rub” from research coordinator Amanda Epping through protective glass on Jan. 3. 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Des Moines’ famed bonobos soon will get free COVID-19 vaccinations.

Zoetis, a New Jersey-based global animal health company, is donating more than 11,000 doses of the experimental vaccine to zoos and sanctuaries around the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is approving the uses on a case-by-case basis. 

Jared Taglialatela, president and director of the Ape Initiative (formerly Great Ape Trust) said the vaccinations should begin in coming weeks. Zoetis officials called the Ape Initiative a couple of months ago and offered to donate vaccine.

The Ape Initiative is a research and conservation organization in southeast Des Moines’ Easter Lake area. Bonobos, close relatives of both chimpanzees and humans, are endangered and live in the wild only in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kanzi is a bonobo at Ape Initiative in Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of Ape Initiative)

The seven bonobos at the Initiative’s complex — Kanzi, Maisha, Teco, Nyota, Clara, Mali and Elikya — remain healthy.

Taglialatela said due to privacy concerns, he can’t say whether any Ape Initiative employees or volunteers have had COVID-19. But, he added, “We have no reason to think the apes were exposed to COVID-19.” Neither the apes nor the staff show coronavirus symptoms currently.

That’s in part due to practices that were already in place, such as each person working close to the apes or cleaning their quarters wearing masks and gloves, Taglialatela said. All workers and volunteers wear shoes that never leave the facility. Workers and volunteers who have been in public just before arriving at the Initiative have to change clothes at the complex before getting near the bonobos.

The Des Moines facility was founded by businessman Ted Townsend, who eventually ended his funding. It is known internationally as home to Kanzi, the subject of many research papers and international press coverage. The 40-year-old bonobo knows dozens of abstract symbols used to communicate with people and can understand some English words. He has joined jam sessions with musicians Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney.

Because the bonobos have always been protected by an elaborate biosecurity plan required by the Initiative and by state, federal and international authorities, Taglialatela sees the vaccine as mainly another dose of safety.

Bonobos are susceptible to respiratory diseases. All Ape Initiative staff members have received standard doses of one of the COVID-19 vaccines for humans.

It also is important to guard against transmission of COVID-19 variants, he added.

Ape Initiative researchers are not concerned that the veterinary vaccine is experimental. 

“We don’t have any reason to be concerned about using it. It seems very safe,” Taglialatela said. 

The vaccine has been used on apes at the San Diego Zoo, where gorillas tested positive for COVID-19.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.