Panbanisha and the Ghost Bike

It’s not often that something I create is controversial. Or perhaps I should say, misunderstood.

Earlier this month, in memory for Panbanisha the famous bonobo who knew language through years of growing up in a conversation and story-rich environment created by her human caretakers, Russ and I created

Russ knew Panbanisha and her famous brother Kanzi before me. Between semesters at the Kansas City Art Institute, he would travel to the Language Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia to help his sister Sue create aluminum and stainless steel tool sites for the bonobos and also for chimpanzees Sherman and Austin.

Later after we were married, on a visit to Atlanta we arrived too early and found the front door locked. Being restless artists who pass time by creating something new, we found an electrical outlet on the porch and created a multimedia program on an Amiga computer with animated graphics that said, “Door is locked. Let us in!” with animated arrows pointing to door. Back in the early 1990’s, before PCs were capable and Macs were struggling, we were using Amiga computers and video systems to create 3D renderings, art presentations, and multimedia programs.

When Sue and Duane arrived, they were astounded that we had created this program in a couple of hours. After that we embarked on almost a decade of work creating a “talking lexigram keyboard” that we called Language Vision. It was a system of nested symbols called lexigrams linked to computer touch screens, laserdiscs, video games to help the bonobos develop their cognitive skills and to study their abilities. We also created monkey maze games funded by NASA to study cognitive abilities of monkeys and Sherman and Austin. When NHK of Japan visited to document the research, we assisted with filming, editing videos, produced in-house documentary videos, and watched Panbanisha chase our dog.

All this was before the internet, blogs and social media. I don’t have a lot of photos, because most of our energy was focused on creating the work, but we have old magazine articles from Time, Newsweek, and other print publications that I should scan someday.

It’s hard to describe how all this intense creative work and thinking about the origins of language and self-awareness effected me, except to say it was profound and became integral to my personal identity. So when we received word that Panbanisha had died of a cold (later determined to be pneumonia), we were terribly sad and concerned about the well-being of the other bonobos.

Since October I have been passing a ghost bike everyday on my way to our studio. The white bike had placed by family and friends in memory of a young man named Eric Floyd who was killed crossing a busy street on his bike. It wasn’t his fault – the street had no pedestrian cross-signal. It wasn’t the truck driver’s fault – he didn’t see the bike in the dark. It was just a terrible accident, and a few days later, to mark the event and location, someone placed a ghost bike at the corner of the intersection. As time passed, flowers and other personal items were added by others.

When Panbanisha died, the ghost bike gave me the idea to create something for Panbanisha.  Knowing there would be other people around the world feeling a sense of loss, we decided the best ghost bike would be a website. Russ secured the domain name, and after some late night hours, we created

It was tearful accumulating photos and building the site. But like any family that suffers the loss of a loved one, part of the healing process – not just for us, but others involved.

Unfortunately however, our good intentions have been misconstrued. Some bloggers and media are saying the site was created as a fund-raiser immediately put together after Panbanashi death, and I’ve received rather unpleasant email to that effect. The fund-raising effort and new Bonobo Hope website had already been in development for several months before the tragedy. A donate link to that previous effort was only added to Panbansha’s site as a way to let people contribute to the future well-being of the family of bonobos in Des Moines, Iowa, who are incredibly rare, endangered, and culturally valuable.

I’m not sure what motivates some people to look for the bad in things, to create blogs and write articles to hurt others. For those of you who know Russ and I well, you know we don’t do creative work motivated by money, we do it because we believe we can help an important cause. For myself, I’ve also always seen the internet as an amazing way to connect and inspire people, and I’m happy to be here, sharing my ideas and art. I probably don’t say this often enough, but thanks for visiting my blog and reading this.

20 thoughts on “Panbanisha and the Ghost Bike”

  1. Pam, I only know you through your blog, and have felt inspired through the years with your artistic gifts. Reading about this other part of your life has amazed me. Your reply above about the dimensions of people is right on. I had to check to see if it was your blog I was reading in the feed, and then to discover this other part of your life amazed me. I found it interesting and I learned something new today. I wish people weren’t so suspicious of good intentions.

    1. Melissa, I really appreciate your comments. That’s funny about checking the blog. I guess I might have sounded like someone else in the RSS feed, but it’s me!

  2. Wow, Pam, some people are so quick to judge and see only bad things! You and Russ do so much for the artistic community, and this incredible work for the bonobo/primate research community as well, truly selfless work. It’s hard for me to understand people who could find something selfish or wrong in what you do, but please know that there are many many more people who think you are awesome! And, I am a great believer in “what goes around, comes around…”!

    1. Hi Candy, thanks for your comments. I guess part of the reaction is to things beyond us and perhaps an ignorance about the details of our work.

  3. Well, I DON’T know you except internet-ly, and I think you’re doing a great thing remembering Panbanisha by setting up your site. Good for you both to devote extra time to a cause like the Bonobos. Ignore the nay-sayers- you know they’re wrong.

    1. Well Sandy, even if it’s through the internet, I feel like I know you pretty well through your work and your dedicated blogging – Thanks for the support!

  4. Dear Pam and Russ, I offer my sympathy in your loss of a good friend. I also am aware of your good hearts and good intentions in all things. For those who doubt or criticize, you do so without knowledge of these two people, and the path they have taken in their lives. They are trustworthy and will do as they say they will. I’m sorry there are those who have hurt you two. I hope you will ignore their ignorance and go on with your efforts in all things.

  5. The longer I know you and Russ, the more I admire and am inspired and amazed by your civic and humanitarian commitments to the power of the creative process. Thank you for all that you do for our city and beyond, and for the connections you facilitate between art, art making, people, communication and process.

    Small hearted people have always suspected the motives of those for whom life looms large and beautiful.

    1. Robin, this mean a lot coming from you. I enjoy working with you on so many projects and am looking forward to more.

      BTW, may I quote your last sentence? That’s lovely!

  6. Pam,
    I had no idea that you had been involved with this research involving primates and language. It is fascinating and I am sure rewarding for you to have been involved in it. I have seen a few movies, and am always left with a feeling of utter loss when the primate spirit leaves this planet, so I can only imagine what it must be like for you. I am so sorry for your loss, and also grateful for your work. I love that you and Russ have done this work and that you have made this wonderful memorial to Panbanisha!

    1. Hey Kathy, isn’t it funny how we have compartments where we think of people, but really there are usually dimensions that we never suspect. I really appreciate your empathy, and thanks so much for your comments.

  7. I have always believed in the connections of the heart. All sentient beings. I have followed Russ & your work for almost 5 years, your hearts are beautiful and for those who cannot see that, what a terrible loss for them. Keep up the great works you both do! You’re inspiring countless others like me!

    1. Laura, I love your choice of words. I’m working on another article that I want to the words “comes from the heart,” so what you are saying really touches me. Thanks for your comments and support!

    1. Hi Teri, thanks for your comments, and I agree, I hope people look for the good. It’s not that hard really. It just takes the mindset that you are going to do it. I feel sorry for the people who don’t because their lives must be a little bleak.

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