Planners of an ape sanctuary on Des Moines’ southeast side held a news conference Thursday to announce details of an orangutan research project and introduce the research team. The facility’s come under fire after contradictory reports over whether the public would be allowed in. Researcher Rob Shumaker works with two orangutans at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.His orangutan research works with two adult animals he says are learning a vocabulary of “abstract symbols and syntax” to communicate. Shumaker showed reporters and interested observers a video of the hairy apes touching a computer screen to indicate what object a researcher was showing them through a window, or choosing a number to indicate how many. They’re not using spoken English, but instead an abstract symbol-set that’s just as useful as spoken words in any language. For example, a rectangle with a diagonal line is the symbol they use for grapes, and he says it works as well as a spoken or written word, or the sign-language gesture for “grapes.” There are applications, he says, including how you could convey information between people who don’t have a common language. The sanctuary, now beginning construction on 137 acres bordered by the Des Moines River, will house four kinds of great ape — gorillas, chimpanzees, the orangutans used in Shumaker’s research, and bonobo apes, which are considered the best at such language projects. While organizers said the public would be able to see the apes, they stressed it will be an atmosphere of respect and learning, not a zoo.
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