Meetings with Remarkable Apes

Lana is a voluptuous 25-year-old brunette with an easy smile, sparkling brown eyes and long chocolate-colored hair, neatly parted in the middle. In many ways, she’s like a lot of women I know, but Lana is not a woman. Lana is a bonobo chimpanzee.

I first met Lana in 1996. I was in San Diego as part of a book tour for The 10 Commandments of Pleasure, my book about Ethical Hedonism, seduction, long-term love and lust. To a great extent, my book was inspired by bonobos. Though I’d never before encountered a bonobo in real life, I’d read everything I could find about them and seen them in several television documentaries. I was fascinated by their uncanny closeness to humans and awed by their amazing but real Make-Love-Not-War “lifestyle,” which I (somewhat anthropomorphically) dubbed The Bonobo Way.

So, in between interviews and seminars, I took a few hours off to visit the San Diego Zoo, which I had heard housed some of these exceedingly rare Great Apes that had inspired my philosophy of pleasure. The bonobos have a nice big space at the SD Zoo, with plenty of foliage, a waterfall, a creek, trees to swing from and grass to roll around in. I arrived in mid-afternoon, and to my delight, found three bonobos (two females and a male) engaged in various forms of sexual activity, including deep kissing, oral sex, ear-tonguing, masturbation, even using a rubber ball as a sex toy.

That time, Lana, then age 17, bounded up to the glass partition between us, looked at me for a few seconds, blew me a quick kiss and went back to playing with her tribe. We met again in the summer of 2003, when she gave me the same sort of greeting, something I saw that she and some of the other bonobos did with many of the tourists, especially the children, who came by to gawk at them.

When I returned to Lana’s domain on September 10, 2004, the situation was a little different. I was accompanied by some friends from France who were interested in learning more about The Bonobo Way. They had seen me doing a show, as well as conducting Bonobo Therapy with a couple, in which I helped them to open up to each other sensuously, playfully and empathetically, “freeing their inner bonobo.”

Now they wanted to see some actual bonobos in action, so off we went to the Zoo. It was a sweltering So Cal September day. We got there early, as soon as the Zoo opened, but still the bonobos seemed overheated and lethargic, especially compared to how they were that first day I saw them in May 1996 when they were licking and sucking and pleasuring each other like bi chicks at a swing party.

Perhaps there were other reasons that the bonobos weren’t playing with each other sexually this hot Indian Summer morning. The zookeeper, who kindly showed us around, apologized for being late, saying she’d had to “separate the females” and “keep them from bonding” or else they’d “attack the males.” Sounded reasonable enough. But my hunch is that that “bonding” is euphemistic Zoo Talk for female-female sex play, also called “genito-genital rubbing” by primatologists, or “hoka-hoka” by the Mogandu people indigenous to the bonobos’ native habitat in the Congo, and that the zookeeper was doing whatever zookeepers do to keep the females from having sex with each other.

Female bisexuality is the centerpiece of bonobo society. So perhaps when these (probably higher ranking) females were physically separated, the rest of the tribe fell into a bit of a funk. In any case, they weren’t doing much, and my French friends were slightly disappointed. Of course, even when they’re not engaged in sex, even when they’re just lying around looking hot and bored, bonobos are delightful to behold. They look so similar to us, so almost-human in their physiognomy and mannerisms; you can gaze into their big brown eyes and feel as if you’ve found the Missing Link.

So there we were, the five of us, Theron, Samantha, my two French friends and me, feeling pretty lethargic ourselves in the gathering heat, but thoroughly enjoying this opportunity to commune with our chimp cousins. We noticed Lana, now the oldest, the Alpha female of the tribe squatting by the creek with Kiri, a younger female with an extremely expressive face. Kiri made faces at us as Lana calmly took in the scene, a tiny month-old infant nursing at her ample breast.

Suddenly Lana, seemingly struck by an powerful feeling, turned and bounded, baby still at her breast, up to the window I was leaning against. She banged on the glass, and then looked me in the eye as if she had something to say. I felt an instant sense of intimacy, as if we were two people drawn to each other who just didn’t speak the same language. At least, not verbally. She put her hand on the glass and I put mine up to meet hers. When I put my other hand on the glass, she put her other hand up to meet mine. Then she leaned back on a branch and put her feet on the glass. I kicked off my sandals, perched on the window ledge and put my bare feet up to hers. I felt like the little kid touching fingertips with ET, except this was no extra-terrestrial; this was a fellow Earthling, my primate cousin, my new friend.

Then she kissed me. This was not just a quick peck hello like before, but a slow, dramatic, tantric smooch right on the glass in front of my face. Perhaps it was a good thing there was a glass separating us for the kissing part, because I might have been a bit startled to get ape spit all over my face. But with the glass safely between us, I felt enchanted, drawn into a spiritual and very physical expression of love that I had, quite frankly, never experienced before. This was a serious connection, but extremely playful at the same time. I kissed her back, our lips meeting but not touching, a modern inter-species same-sex version of Tristan and Isolde.

Two beings of just slightly different species, but totally different worlds, drawn to each other. Why? Well, I know why I was drawn to Lana. I’ve been studying bonobos for years, thinking about why they are so peaceful and so sexual, how we are like them and how we are not, how they have sex with so much sensitivity and savoir faire, and how they use sex to reduce violence in their societies. Bonobos had grown mythic in my mind. And now here was one who apparently wanted very much to communicate something to me. I felt touched by an angel who looked like a chimpanzee.

Of course, it’s harder for me to say why Lana was drawn to me. One of the many amateur primatologists who hang around the ape exhibits, said, “She’s angry with you,” when she first saw Lana–later joined by Kiri making faces and Mchumba doing handstands–banging on the glass at me. Then when this same woman noticed how Lana gently touched the glass just where I touched it, kissed me through the glass and looked at me, she revised her opinion. “She likes your hat,” she declared. I was wearing a wide-brimmed white straw hat that did look a bit like a halo around my long hair. Maybe I was Lana’s “angel.” Perhaps our almost universal notion that angels have bright halos is pre-human, who knows? Then as Lana continued to “chat” with me like a best girlfriend, in between kisses and communing via hands and feet, the lady said, “I hope you appreciate how much attention Lana is paying you. She never does that with anybody. You should feel honored.”

I certainly did feel honored. I only wish I knew what she was trying to tell me. Maybe it was just “girl talk.” Could be she was asking, “What’s with the halo, lady?” Could she be flirting with me? Perhaps she was one of the female bonobos that the zookeeper had “separated” from another female and, feeling sexually frustrated, she focused some of her intense libido on a “safe” target that wouldn’t get her into trouble with the zookeeper: me. My French friends were so *impressed,* they insisted that Lana somehow recognized that I’m a big bonobo advocate among humans, and she was greeting me, as the Alpha female of the San Diego Zoo tribe, ambassador-to-ambassador, to give me her encouragement and blessing. Even though I don’t believe that (how could this chimp know I’m a bonobo advocate?), I have come away from my Close Encounter with Bonobo Lana feeling greatly encouraged and truly blessed.

In “On Tortoises, Monkeys and Men,” Dr. Tony Rose writes about “profound interspecies events (PIEs)” which he describes as “natural epiphanies reunion(s) of humanity and nature” that occur when “humans experience profound connections with animals.” My meeting with Lana was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a PIE, but what did it mean? I can only guess about what it meant to Lana, but for me, it was a physical affirmation of a powerful connection between our two species that I believe could save us both.

In these deadly times of human war, terror and error, it is vital that we reach out to our kissin’ cousins who hold the erotic key to peace: the bonobos. As I see it, Lana and I were reaching out to each other through the glass because we both need each other more than ever now. Not Lana herself; she and her tiny baby are safe and pretty well taken care of in their plush digs at the San Diego Zoo (though I can’t help but worry about the zookeeper preventing the females from bonding). But the bonobos as a species are teetering on the edge of extinction, thanks to the toll on their numbers taken by human war, poaching and destruction of the Congolese rain forest. Ironically enough, though they’ve been decimated by humans, now they need human help more than ever to survive as a species and as individuals. They even need the help of humans like me, controversial as we may be in these censorious times, because we love them, and we spread the Gospel of the Bonobos to our fellow humans everywhere.

We are trying to shake up America and the world to a new way of doing business, the Bonobo Way, the way of love, not war. This is the way of the future, if there is to be a future, for all of us. In saving the bonobos, we just might save ourselves. In reaching out to me through the glass, perhaps Lana was giving a kiss and a helping hand to one terrorized human race.

Dr. SUSAN BLOCK is a sex educator, cultural commentator, host of The Dr. SUSAN BLOCK Show and author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure. Her essay on John Ashcroft’s “breast fetish” is included in CounterPunch’s Serpents in the Garden: Liaisons with Sex and Culture. Visit her website at http://www.drsusanblock.com.

Please Write Me! Send me your tired, your poor, your hate mail, love letters, commentary, photos, questions and confessions at liberties@blockbooks.com.

© December 1, 2004, Dr. SUSAN BLOCK. For reprint rights, please contact rox@blockbooks.com



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Susan Block, Ph.D., a.k.a. “Dr. Suzy,” is an internationally renowned LA sex therapist and author, occasionally seen on HBO and other channels. Her newest book is The Bonobo Way: The Evolution of Peace through Pleasure. Visit her at http://DrSusanBlock.com. For speaking engagements, call 310-568-0066. Email your comments to her at liberties@blockbooks.com and you will get a reply.

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