Planet of the Love Monkeys

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"They do it in every combination imaginable. They do it face-to-face, with some French kissing thrown in. And they do it often just to relieve tension."

A Society of Mama's Boys

Not much is known about the bonobos, also known as the pygmy chimpanzees. They are few in number and were only identified as a distinct species in the ape world in the 1930s. They are only known to live in the wilds of the Congo region of Africa.

Compared to chimps, the bonobos have longer legs and smaller heads. They're more slender and tend to walk erect on two feet — much as humans do.

And unlike the male-dominated, sometimes warlike chimps, the bonobos are all mama's boys. In fact, the males depend on their mothers for protection all their lives and derive their status by being the son of a dominant female.

Only about 120 bonobos are in captivity. A zookeeper in Cincinnati learned just how different a bonobo is from other primates a few years ago. "The bonobo grabbed him and kissed him, open-mouthed," said de Waal. "That guy probably never expected to get a tongue stuck in his mouth."

"A chimp wouldn't engage in 'French kissing,' but certainly, that's just the beginning for a bonobo," said de Waal.

The political maelstrom in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo has made it nearly impossible for scientists to do more research on this endangered species.

In recent years, animal rights activists have complained that bonobos are being hunted and eaten as "bush meat." Scientists fear as few as 10,000 still exist in the wild.

"We can only assume the worst," says de Waal. "It would be so tragic to lose them. Yet the risk is very real."

We can only hope that the situation in the bonobos' homeland will improve, that they will soon get the protection they deserve. Maybe we all have to consider that we're a little more like the bonobo than we care to admit.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.