Bittersweet Valentine for bonobo Bili

Not always love and peace

Bonobos are having a reputation for being peaceful and gentle. There’s a reason that February 14 is World Bonobo Day, at Valentine’s! But sadly there are exceptions. In the zoo of Wuppertal, bonobo Bili has been seriously injured by his kind. Bili is missing pieces of his ear, finger and toe and his genitals are severely damaged.

In 2008 Bili was born at Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire (UK), but he was rejected by his mother. He was moved to Frankfurt to be fostered by a female who was caring for her own offspring. This solution proved effective and everything went well with Bili. The zoo in Frankfurt explained that there were conflicts in his community, but these belonged to the normal behavioral repertoire of these highly social apes. No extremely violent attacks were reported in the first ten years of Bili’s life.[1] In November 2018 he was taken out of his community and transferred to Wuppertal Zoo. The reason was to provide for offspring in the new group, as it was confirmed by Wuppertal Zoo director Arne Lawrenz.[2] Sadly, soon after the transition, Bili’s nightmare began, because he was being viciously attacked by the other bonobos in Wuppertal.[3]

The ongoing bullying of Bili was filmed and spread across social media. Photos showed a depressed and traumatized ape with fresh blood between his black hair.[4] It still goes viral on social media, while an online petition to bring him to a sanctuary in Wales is almost reaching 300.000 signatures. [5] Because of the public outcry, Wuppertal Zoo explained that the EEP (European Endangered Species Programmes) would have the final say about Bili. The EEP operates as a project of the EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria).[6]

That’s why, at February 11, the Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary urged people to send an email to EAZA. Core of this message was: Bili should be allowed to retire from the breeding program and live a life of peace and quiet. [7] David Wiliams-Mitchell, Director of Communications and Membership of EAZA, responded the same day by email to all the people who joined this action:

The EEP Species Committee recommended for Bili to move to Frankfurt zoo to be fostered by a female caring for her own offspring; this solution proved effective over the first years of his life. However, with changing social dynamics as Bili grew up, the EEP made the decision to relocate Bili to another facility – had he not move, it is likely that he would be experiencing a similar dynamic to that at Wuppertal. After several years of discussion and planning, Wuppertal zoo was identified as the best option for Bili, and he was transferred there in November 2018. In making this decision, the EEP evaluated each of the nine other EAZA Members that house bonobos and also discussed a transfer to the American Species Survival Plan (SSP) Programme. [8]

He was defending Bili’s transfer, but failed to explain what he meant with changing social dynamics.

You may wonder if the concealment of Bili’s place in a breeding program has anything to do with the dubious statement that the poor bonobo would likely experienced the same tragic fate if he had stayed in Frankfurt.

His lower rank would have made him vulnerable. But the zoo in Frankfurt states that one can not compare the integration of a juvenile with that of an adult male and therefore the events around Bili in Frankfurt and Wuppertal are different. [9] Apart from the fact that no serious problems had occurred in Frankfurt, putting an adult bonobo man in a strange mixed gender group is always known as risky. [10]

Science journalist Colin Goldner claims that the British Bili came with a very different bloodline and never should have left Frankfurt for genetic reasons. And if his genes would be problematic, he could be sterilized. But that’s exactly the point: Bili was taken out of the Frankfurt group because they wanted to have a new “breeding male” in Wuppertal.[11] That’s what EAZA failed to make public in their defending statement about their decision.

Mama Bonobo

There’s no question about the importance of a mother in a matriarchal bonobo group. The core of Bili’s problem is well explained in the same email from EAZA:

The Bonobo EEP is clear that transfer of young males without their mother is not an easy process; in the wild, bonobo males rely heavily on the social standing and support of their mother. The EEP therefore aims, if necessary, to transfer young males along with their mothers or other familiar group members, to ensure that they remain under maternal protection. Due to the circumstances surrounding his birth and young life this has not been possible with Bili. The EEP and Wuppertal zoo have taken measures to reduce the risk to him from other animals during the long and delicate process of introducing him to a new group. Despite their peaceful public image, bonobos can inflict serious wounds. Both in the wild and in zoos female attacks on males occur more than any other type. Female bonobos will often form coalitions against males, and males without a mother in the group are typical victims. Introductions in apes can be a lengthy process. With bonobos most introductions initially go very smoothly but often after a few weeks, social relationships begin to develop and alliances are formed. It is a dynamic system that can change from one day to the next. While aggression in primates is often spectacular, it is more important to look for what happens after a fight, and whether the bonobos also make up after the aggression. While aggression has happened during the introduction of Bili, behavioural observations have also shown that reconciliation has also occurred, and certain individuals in his new group have also begun to protect Bili against the attacks… In the meantime, the EEP will continue to monitor this introduction and if there is no sufficient progress, will undertake steps to find alternative solutions, including the possible transfer of more socially flexible animals to other facilities within the EEP. [12]


While the EAZA is optimistic about possible developments which could lead to the integration of Bili in the group, protesters are keeping a close watch on his wellbeing. Today, at Valentine’s & World Bonobo-day, the ape sanctuary (WAMS) gives a partially reassuring update on Facebook:

They have taken him out of the group and at the moment he isn’t under attack, which of course, we are happy about. Wuppertal Zoo is under the microscope now, they know the world is watching. [13]

To clarify their argument, the ape sanctuary translated a statement of Professor Volker Sommer. This professor of Evolutionary Anthropology is pointing out that the risk of injury to bonobo males, which also exists in the field, is exacerbated in captivity:

First. In contrast to the field, it is not uncommon that males held captive are transferred to another group. But that is the exact opposite of the natural situation. Because in the field males are “philopatrisch”, that is, they stay with their mates in their birth group, while the females emigrate. Therefore, bonobo males are more or less closely related to the other males of their own group – genetic ties that give the individual bonobo man at least some protection against aggression. More importantly, sons are often screened by their powerful mothers. – Secondly. Until recently, it was common zoo practice to lock up a single bonobo male with a group of females – a precarious and dangerous situation for the isolated man. The artificial formation of such “harem groups” is also the opposite of the open field situation, because here the apes live in many-male-many-female societies. That zoological garden biologists like to ignore this long-known fact reflects a macho mental attitude – zoologists like to think in the traditional scheme of the “alpha ape”, who is the boss of several females, and will somehow bite through … Instead it comes vice versa – and the allegedly strong man is badly treated by the supposedly weak women.– Third. In the field, attacked animals can escape until they are out of sight, across the ground and through the branches, an option that they often realize, until the situation has eased. Imprisoned animals do not have the opportunity, but are at the mercy of confronting the aggressors.
These circumstances reflect the cruel reality of a zoo, where highly sensitive creatures are kept lifelong, just so we can delight in them. By the way, this has nothing to do with nature or species protection; never was or will a bonobo be released from a German zoo into the wilderness. That would be nonsense, because there are hundreds of uprooted bonobos who were deprived of their forest homeland, in Africa in detention centers. So, if “release” comes into question, then these would be the first candidates. And not the prisoners of Wuppertal.
The Zoo Wuppertal has already made negative headlines in the past concerning the apes. The management was neither then nor today ready to respond to criticism. [14]

With the ongoing disagreement about the fate of bonobo Bili, the debate is getting heated. The Wuppertal Zoo was spreading leaflets with the message that the Wales Sanctuary knows nothing about apes and monkeys. But WAMS bites back in a statement in which they were very critical about the conditions of the zoo, with a symbolic photo and the remark that the greenery was on the wrong side of the glass.


We have a license and unlike Wuppertal Zoo our apes and monkeys all have outside areas and all are rescued and none are in breeding programs, consigning more animals to a life of captivity. Neither do they live as if they are in a shop window in a mall. You will notice all the greenery is on the wrong side of the glass, there for the humans to enjoy. While on the other side all the apes have is concrete and a few dead tree stumps! [15]

It will be interesting to see what the European zoos and breeding programs are going to do with incidents like these. Will they come to the public first and be honest about issues with animals (apes in particular), or will they wait for the next possible protest to come and face grassroot organisations? Luckily, many zoos are getting greener and giving their animals more space than before.
As visitors we can encourage them to be as progressive as possible and looking more like national parks. But as long as animals are held captive by humans, we are responsible for them and shouldn’t look away when they suffer. Transparency is essential.


  1. Frankfurter Neue Presse, Fall Bili eskaliert weiter: Morddrohungen gegen den Wuppertaler Zoodirektor (13 Feb 2019)
  2. Westdeutsche Zeitung, Affenjunge Bili: Tierschützer werfen Wuppertaler Zoo „katastrophales Fehlverhalten“ vor (22 Jan 2019)
  3. Colin Goldner, Vom leiden eines kleinen Affen, Humanistischer Pressedienst (8 Feb. 2019).
  4. Stern TV, Schwierige Integration: Wie geht es Affe Bili inzwischen? (13 Feb. 2019)
  5. The Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary is specialized in the rehabilitation of confiscated monkeys from circuses, zoos, pharmaceutical laboratories or private entertainment. WAMS had offered to take Bili to the UK. But their offer got refused.
  6. The Bonobo EEP (European Endangered Species Programmes) scientifically manages bonobos in EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) member zoos to ensure a genetically and demographically healthy population.
  7. The Wales Ape and monkey Sanctuary Facebook Page (10 Feb. 2019)
  8. EAZA Response to inquiries about the welfare of bonobos at Wuppertal Zoo, Germany (11 Feb 2019)
  9. Frankfurter Neue Presse (13 Feb 2019)
  10. Colin Goldner (8 Feb. 2019)
  11. Idem.
  12. EAZA Response to inquiries about the welfare of bonobos at Wuppertal Zoo, Germany (11 Feb 2019)
  13. Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary Facebook Page (14 Feb 2019)
  14. Prof. Volker Sommer, Prof. Volker Sommer about Bonobo Bili’s situation in Zoo Wuppertal (German/English versions) (10 Feb 2019); Prof. Volker Sommer about Bonobo Bili’s situation in Zoo Wuppertal (German version) (9 Feb 2019)
  15. Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary, Facebook Page (13 Feb 2019)

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