Celebrating World Bonobo Day

Posted February 14, 2020 by Ron Evans

By the Bonobo Care team – Jungle Trails

Bonobos are man’s closest living relatives, sharing over 98% of the same DNA. Bonobos share defining primate traits with humans like opposable thumbs, the largest brains per body size, and eyes on the front of their faces creating binocular vision and superior depth perception. As a result, apes are able to problem solve and modify their environments better than any group of animals. Bonobos have the same number of teeth as humans and the same number of hairs on their bodies, just thicker and longer. Their faces are flatter than chimpanzees giving them a more humanlike look. Their big brains also allow them to live in complex social societies and experience community learning all their lives. Mothers raise their offspring for many years and the develop close relationships and coalitions with others for socio-political gain. Although they all do bonobo things, their personalities are as individual as ours with each bonobo being different. Below are some fun fact personality profiles on the Cincinnati Zoo bonobo family and their keeper connections. Enjoy!

Bonobo Personality Bios


At 48 years old, Vernon is the oldest member of the Cincinnati bonobo troop and is the second oldest mammal at the zoo. He is also one of the oldest bonobos in North America.  Vernon spends a fair amount of time grooming and relaxing with friends, but also enjoys energetic play sessions with his four-year-old son, Bo. Vernon likes to stay comfortable, and keepers often see him carrying a flake of straw around his enclosure to use as a chair while he snacks on some fruit.

Photo by Tennessee Trails Photography

Vim, a 24-year-old male, is a very expressive individual. When he wants to show off how” fierce” he is, he will bristle his hair and make the most noise out of any of the other bonobos. If it’s play time, he will make a big grin with a floppy bottom lip, bobbing his head up and down repeatedly. The keepers maintain a good relationship with all the bonobos and are able to teach the bonobos important health inspection behaviors like body presentations, awake cardiac exams, and blood draws.  And when it’s Vim’s time to train, he will excitedly become very focused and learn new behaviors quickly.

Photo by Max Block

Vergil, a 26-year-old male, is a lower ranking member of the troop. In bigger social groups, Vergil can lack confidence. Bonobos are a matriarchal society meaning they are run by coalitions of females and not alpha males, like chimps or gorillas.  In smaller group settings, Vergil appears more self-assured and will participate in play and grooming sessions. Like Vim, he is also keen on training time with keeper staff and learns new behaviors quickly.

Photo by Tennessee Trails Photography

At 21-years-old, Zanga is the matriarch of the Cincinnati bonobo troop. She is a very diplomatic leader, making sure everyone acts appropriately. Zanga knows how to use a look or quick “bark” vocalization to keep other bonobos in line, rarely using aggression to maintain her position in the group. Zanga is also the mother to her four-year-old son, Bo. Zanga is an attentive mother, comforting her son whenever he needs attention and keeping an eye on his rambunctious play sessions.

Bolingo – “Bo”
Photo by Max Block

Bo, a 4-year-old male, is the youngest member of the troop. He is energetic, playing nearly constantly with his bonobo friends or with guests at the bonobo indoor habitat glass. Since bonobo males inherit their rank from their mothers, he knows he can get away with just about anything because his mom, Zanga, will be there to support him! Bo is a popular little ambassador for endangered wild bonobos. There are only about 15,000 bonobos left in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is the only place they are found.  Fittingly the word “Bolingo” means “to love” in Lingala, the language spoken in the DRC.

Photo by Max Block

At 40-years-old, Lana is the oldest female in the Cincinnati bonobo troop. Lana will frequently interact with guests at the indoor habitat glass. Lana also participates in a lot of grooming while with the other bonobos, especially while with Vernon! And despite breakfast consisting of a variety of yummy foods, Lana will forage for lettuce first and can sometimes be seen trying to carry entire heads of lettuce in her hands and feet. Perhaps her affinity for salads comes from living in San Diego California before she came here.  All zoos in North America cooperatively care for the entire population of bonobos through the Species Survival Plan (SSP). The SSP matches up genetics and personalities to ensure a healthy and happy zoo bonobo population. Zoos don’t buy or sell bonobos, trade them for other animals, or take them from the wild.

Photo by Max Block

Kesi, a 15-year-old female, can act differently depending on her social group. While with Vernon and Lana, Kesi can spend most of her time grooming and relaxing. If she is with some of the younger troop members, she can be energetic and playful. Kesi’s dynamic personality allows her to get along with everyone! Kesi is also very interested in training with keeper staff and is always eager to learn new things. Bonobo social dynamics are different than chimps or gorillas. They mostly choose to defuse tensions with hugging, grooming and other close bonding activities rather than aggression. They are called the hippie apes, as they make love not war.

Photo by Max Block

At 10-years-old, Kenge is a very playful female. She is determined to have fun no matter what! Keepers provide all the bonobos with daily enrichment items including different food, puzzle devices, nesting materials and a long list of novel engaging things to augment the regular great daily diet and care they get. Kenge loves to interact with her enrichment items. She will cover herself with fabric, jump into boxes, or roll around in water if given any opportunity. Kenge was born and raised at a zoo in Florida, so one of her favorite enrichments is when keepers give her large piles of snow! With such a goofy personality, Kenge has a lot of bonobo friends that engage in her fun antics through long lasting play sessions.

“Keeper Spirit Bonobos”

As bonobo are so closely related to humans its easy to feel some extra level of kindred spirit to them. This certainly holds true for the bonobo team at the zoo.  Whether it’s the strong leadership from Zanga, the sage experience and gravitas of Vernon, the exuberant life approach of Kenge or the wide-eyed and mischievous outlook of little Bo, the staff can’t help but help but have a Spirit Bonobo!

Eric High- Team Lead of Primates

Lana is my spirit bonobo! I was here the day she arrived from San Diego, California. She came to our facility through a Species Survival Plan (SSP) recommendation, which facilitates the social and genetic management of bonobos throughout institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Since having the opportunity to get to know Lana, she is always the bonobo most eager to see me when I come through the area. Her excited reactions always make my day!

Stephanie Schuler- Head Keeper of Jungle Trails

Zanga is the matriarch of the Cincinnati bonobo troop, so as head keeper I certainly relate to Zanga’s “management style.” She and I both try to be supportive and diplomatic, which fosters a cohesive bonobo troop (or animal care team!). Zanga is also the mother to two offspring; since I have two children myself, I certainly relate to her as a busy mother too! As is typical of primates, bonobo mothers invest a lot of time and energy into each child. The goal is to prepare them for adulthood, teaching them how to survive and fostering social development. Zanga’s aptitude for mothering has been an important part of our troop.

Vicki Ulrich- Jungle Trails Keeper

Vim is my spirit bonobo! I can certainly relate to his very expressive personality since I also tend to have expressive mannerisms. Just like Vim, I also like to take my time in developing new friendships. I can be quiet and reflective, initially. Once I develop a trusting relationship with someone, I will let my guard down and become freely expressive and playful!

Matt Miller- Jungle Trails Keeper

I feel like Vernon is my spirit bonobo! I do my best to utilize my experience for the overall success of the team, just like Vernon does for the bonobo troop. With Vernon’s experience, he helps to foster the development of younger individuals in the troop. I try to do the same with new keepers, interns, and students! Did you know that at Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, we have a Zoo Academy program for high school juniors and seniors? This past year, I was actually voted as one of the favorite keepers of the Zoo Academy class! I think this is because I always try to take my time with students, learning about their professional goals and teaching them many things I’ve learned in my time at the zoo!

Matt Spence- Jungle Trails Keeper

Lana is my spirit bonobo! For starters, we have the exact same birthday… down to the year! While I don’t necessarily share her affinity for lettuce, we do have a lot of other things in common. Lana likes to be critically aware of people or bonobos in her surroundings, making sure to know what’s going on around her. She is also expressive about her opinions, being quick to show whether or not she likes or dislikes something in her environment. I tend to do the same, helping to support team accomplishments or build solutions when something could be improved!

Theresa Clyatt-Larson- Jungle Trails Keeper

My spirit bonobo is definitely Kesi. I spend a lot of my time at Jungle Trails East, where I help provide the care for orangutans, gibbons, and new world primates. This building is typically much quieter than Jungle Trails West, which has louder primates (both human and non-human, haha!!). I really enjoy my peace and quiet at Jungle Trails East! But just like Kesi, I can also enjoy a more energetic and social setting. When I am working at Jungle Trails West, I know how to partake in playful joking with my coworkers and have fun training sessions with the bonobos in our care. Since Kesi also adapts to her social setting, I think her personality best reflects mine!

Jon Kiefer- Jungle Trails Keeper

Vim is my spirit bonobo! He tends to astutely observe people and other bonobos before making up his mind about them. Bonobos are a highly intelligent primate, with the ability to critically think and problem solve. When Vim watches his surroundings, you can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he critically evaluates those around him. As someone who likes to make calculated decisions, I very much relate to Vim the most! And once he decides he approves of someone, he can be a complete goofball and initiate a lot of playful behaviors; I find myself to be the exact same way!

Victoria McGee- Jungle Trails Keeper

My spirit bonobo is Kenge! Her goofy approach to life is very relatable to me. Kenge will take a simple task, like moving between dens to forage for food, and turn it into something fun. Why only walk, when you can jump, run, or barrel roll across the floor to get where you need to go?? Since I tend to be very active and energetic, I can definitely see myself in her mannerisms and expressions.  And just like Kenge, I am also from Florida! When I experienced my first Ohio snowfall, I immediately had to jump into it and play; Kenge did the exact same thing when we gave her large piles of snow for enrichment!

Ron Evans – Curator of Primates

My spirit bonobo is Vernon as he and I are a bit long-in-the-tooth and have been around the zoo for quite a while now. About 35 years for me and 30 for him!  At almost 49 and the second oldest mammal at the zoo, Vernon has seen a lot and he is only one of three original animals that has lived at Jungle Trails since it opened in the early 90s! As older dudes, he and I both have some hair loss these days. His is because he is so popular with the other bonobos.  Bonobos spend long periods of time bonding by super grooming each other and his popularity gets him plucked a lot!  Unfortunately, my hair loss is plain old male pattern baldness ☹. However, I really do like to socialize with our amazing primate keeper team at Jungle Trails. 😊 They show their compassion and love for Vernon and his friends through the professional, intelligent, physically tough, experienced and dedicated care they give the bonobos every single day. They are an inspirational group just like the bonobos!

Who is your Spirit Bonobo?!