Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo, by Vanessa Woods. Gotham Books (2010), 278 pages.

Bonobo Handshake has the kind of cover that is impossible for animal lovers to resist: darling bonobo baby in the arms of an equally adorable young woman, the subtitle’s promise of love and adventure. What could possibly go wrong? It’s bound to be so heart-warming and full of charming bonobo anecdotes that we won’t even care if it’s badly written.

Alas, I forgot about the seemingly compulsory requirement for authors writing about endangered or captive animals to traumatize the reader with scenes of animal torture. I understand the desire (even necessity) to convey to readers the reality of what bonobos are facing—this is, after all, what motivates people to care, to donate money (http://www.friendsofbonobos.org/support.htm), to think about the impact of their materialism on the animals’ habitat—but I have to object to this kind of detailed, vivid description of animal suffering being forced upon me.

If the author were to sequester these scenes in their own chapters or sections of the book, with titles and headings that clearly alert the reader to what they are about to read, I would not be opposed to their inclusion. But for me to be happily enjoying a description of enchanting baby bonobo behavior and then suddenly, without warning, to be ambushed by a paragraph that is meant to horrify and traumatize me is cruel and unfair.

I started keeping track of the offending pages in the early part of the book, hoping to be able to warn readers which pages to avoid, but there were so many of them I gave up. I loved the baby bonobos enough that I did finish the book, but I ended up reading it with gritted teeth and eyes squinched half-closed in fear of what horrible thing I was going to come across next. And in the end, I have to say I regret I read it. I don’t need more images of animal torture seared into my brain, and I resent the way they seem to have been meant to catch me by surprise.

In addition to this, there are a few other problems with the book. Woods has an unfortunate tendency to make pop culture references that are going to be incomprehensible, not to mention off-putting (what is Flavor Flav doing here?) to many readers. Her descriptions of her fights with her husband, though meant, I  believe, to be cute, are not particularly well done and feel incongruent with the rest of the book. And finally, her efforts to merge the history of war in the Congo with the story of the bonobos feels forced and superficial. It makes sense to me that Woods would have wanted to contrast war-mongering humans with peace-loving bonobos since much of her research was focused on cooperation and tolerance vs. aggression, but the Congo’s recent history is much too complicated for the fragments of events she includes here to be of much use to the reader.

There are still, however, some portions of Bonobo Handshake that are interesting and worth reading (assuming you are the rare animal lover who doesn’t mind reading about animal suffering) such as those on the differences between chimps and bonobos, the research Woods did on sharing and cooperation in chimps and bonobos, the astonishing amount of sex bonobos seem to have, and the relationships that developed between the orphaned bonobo babies and their caretakers. I also appreciated the many full-color photos of the bonobos.

We each throw our end of the rope about a foot inside the enclosure toward the bonobos. Isiro looks at her end like it’s a piece of dirt under her fingernails. Semendwa takes the end Brian has thrown and pulls it gently.

“Isiro, come on, you have to pull at the same time.”
Isiro ignores me. Semendwa slowly unthreads the rope and pulls it into the room. She winds it around herself, feather-boa style.
“That’s a bust,” calls Brian. “Let’s get the  rope back for trial two.”
Brian give me a banana to offer to Semendwa.
“Semendwa. Give me the rope.”

Semendwa unwinds the rope, then coils it around her waist and fluffs it up like a tutu. She is clearly infatuated with its tangerine color, its sinewy texture. She pushes her face against it and inhales deeply.

Brian has tragedy written all over his face. For the last ten years there was one thing that made him special—he thinks like a chimpanzee. He can look into their eyes and get a feeling for what they will do, what they want. Chimps aren’t afraid of doors. They will sell their soul for a grape. If they take something from you, they will trade it for something better.

Bonobos are genetically so close to chimps that most people can’t tell them apart, but Brian doesn’t understand them. Everything they do is completely bizarre. And even though Brian prides himself on being one of the few people who think bonobos are different, he still thought he could work with bonobos the same way he works with chimps.

He knows bonobos aren’t stupid. He knows the test is possible because he has already done everything at Ngamba Island. If the Ngamba Island chimps were as tolerant as bonobos, there is no telling what they could have done. Bonobos should be able to do this test. It should be easy for them. Instead, the whole experiment is about to fall apart because Semendwa loves the rope more than she loves bananas.