My Husband Fell in Love With a Bonobo

She had glossy black hair and eyelashes that arrived a minute before she did. She sashayed past me, threaded her fingers through my husband’s hair, and let her eyes work their magic. He was gone. Her name was Malou, and she had been found stuffed in someone’s hand luggage on the x-ray machine at an airport in Paris. Bonobos fetch up to $15,000 on the black market, and Malou was on her way to end up as someone’s pet in a cage in Russia. When airport officials discovered her, they almost euthanized her. But luck was on her side, and she was sent back to where she came from, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her mother had been shot for bushmeat, so Malou could not have survived in the wild. Instead, she arrived at Lola Ya Bonobo, the only bonobo sanctuary in the world and home to more than 60 orphans just like her. My husband and I were there studying how their minds were both similar and different to ours.

Falling in love with a bonobo is not like falling in love with a dog or a fish. As our closest living relatives, sharing 98.7% of our DNA, bonobos don’t just look human, they practically are human. They have fingernails and walk on two legs. The females have breasts. And they have sex. A lot of sex. Missionary, doggy style, blossoming flower, butterfly and about a hundred more positions you have never heard of. Malou was only five, but she could have any male she wanted, including mine. “He’s mine, you little hussy,” I hissed, furiously tapping my engagement ring. In response, Malou looked at me, jumped on my shoulders and kicked me in the head.

Bonobo love is like a laser beam. They stop. They stare at you as though they have been waiting their whole lives for you to walk into their jungle. And then they love you with such helpless abandon that you love them back. You have to love them back.

I should explain that my husband Brian is, first and foremost, a scientist. I had been having my own love affairs with the bonobos in the nursery for years, and he always rolled his eyes. He loved bonobos for their minds. For what they could tell him about life’s great questions – what did it mean to be human? How could bonobos make us more human than we are?

But he was helpless against Malou. His legs carried him without him even knowing to her shady abode several times a day, where she would fling her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist and he would whisper secrets that would have her panting with laughter, and it was all just nauseating. All the more so because Malou had quickly figured out that I was the other woman, and spent her days trying to ruin me. She covered me in poop. She devastated my hair. After every encounter with her, I looked like the forest ape.

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‘Brian threw her so high that if she fell, she would have broken her neck. But she laughed and laughed while she was scraping the sky, because she knew that he would never, ever drop her.’ Photograph: Vanessa Woods

The years passed, and with each visit, I saw Malou turning into the long, lovely bonobo she would become. I caught glimpses of blush in her cheeks. The way she would turn to the light like a teenager staring out of a window. She was clever and resourceful and could kick some ass. There was talk of her being released into the wild with six other bonobos. Then, in 2008, she died. It was sudden. Bonobos are vulnerable to most human diseases, and in Congo, there are a lot of them.

Brian’s heart was broken. He still loves bonobos and studies their minds and fights tirelessly for their conservation, but he will never love another bonobo like he loved Malou.

As for me, I still miss her. The moment I fell in love with her too was when I saw Brian throw her in the air, as high as he could. He threw her so high that if she fell, she would have broken her neck. But she laughed and laughed while she was scraping the sky, because she knew that he would never, ever drop her. That no matter what, he would catch her as she fell. In 2011, Brian and I had a little girl. We called her Malou.


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