STUTTGART — Banbo is the first one to get the idea. The 11-year-old female chimpanzee presses her thumb firmly on the button and changes the channel on the TV set up in her enclosed living space. Fifteen-year-old Liboso is less certain and still sometimes presses her feet against the screen. The rest of the group prefers to watch from a distance.
Apes are not the easiest crowd when it comes to television, as American primate researcher Amy Parish has discovered at Stuttgart’s Wilhelma Zoo. The 47-year-old is using the zoo’s bonobos to study primates’ interaction with the small screen.
The zoo has installed the world’s first bonobo cinema, with a screen set into the wall of the enclosure and five large buttons that the chimps can use to change channel. They can flick between footage showing three different types of behavior: sex, play or aggression. The lead actors are always apes and one film shows the life of wild bonobos in the Congo.
Amy Parish has been working with bonobos for 23 years and has carried out research in many zoos across Europe and America. She already knows the Wilhelma Zoo, as she conducted research here for her doctorate in the 1990s. During that time she discovered that bonobos — which have DNA extremely similar to that of humans — form social groups in which the females are dominant.
“The power definitely lies with the women,” Parish tells us. But how does that power balance manifest itself when it comes to TV? That’s what Parish wants to find out in Stuttgart.
Her research project is financed by a private U.S. foundation. As both a primatologist and anthropologist, Parish hopes that her research could provide clues about how violent films affect behavior, even among humans.
A groundbreaking project
Parish’s experiments are not the first to set apes before the small screen. However, the unique aspect of the Stuttgart study is that the animals can press the buttons themselves and choose between different programs.
“It’s a global pilot project,” says Parish, and it could provide answers to some intriguing questions. Which programs are the apes most interested in? Do males show different preferences than females? How do tastes vary within a group?
At first Banbo needed a bit of time to find the on switch. The female bonobo comes from a zoo in Britain, where a few years ago researchers showed apes video footage of other animals. According to one of the keepers, films of predators met with “disapproval,” while smaller animals elicited a chorus of oohs and aahs. “When a snake came onto the screen, they panicked and ran away screaming. Then a bit later they crept back to check that the coast was clear.”
It seems that the bonobos showed a marked preference for cartoons and wildlife films. They loved action and bright colors but were bored by political shows. Apparently when the TV broke down and had to be repaired, the mechanic who brought it back was welcomed with applause.