The photos for The Empathy Way Series were taken at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Empathy Way Series uses photographs of a community of bonobo apes to illustrate empathy. Marian Brickner photographed this community of bonobos over a 12-year span at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida.
Besides being cute and engaging for children, bonobos are also very much like humans and display similar emotional and interactional patterns. Bonobo apes are our closest genetic relatives—they share more than 98% of our genetic make-up.
Bonobos are similar to humans in size and weight, and live to 50 or 60 years of age in captivity. They are naturally found in the Congo in Africa, but are an endangered species.
Bonobos are highly intelligent. In captivity, they have been taught symbolic language and are adept at problem-solving and communication. Bonobos are Great Apes, along with gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. We are fascinated with the bonobo apes, perhaps because we see our fundamental selves in them.
Bonobo apes are known for their peaceful behavior, and have been called the “hippie ape” because of their peace-loving ways and use of sexual interactions to calm, connect, and resolve problems with each other. Because of the target audience, there is no depiction of sexuality or genitalia in the Empathy Way book series.
Although disagreements and arguments occur, bonobos are quick to resolve their differences and restore social harmony. Their emotional and social lives seem very similar to our own: they possess capacities for empathy, altruism, and compassion.
Researchers are expanding our understandings about the intellectual, social, and psychological capacities of the apes: new appreciations are blowing away almost every one of our preconceived notions about the boundaries between us and them. You only have to interact with an ape once to know that they are much more like us than different.
When you sit with an ape, it feels like interacting with another person. You feel a true communication happening, with all the subtleties and nuances of human engagement. The apes display simple and overt empathy for others, both in the wild and in captivity.
Observations of empathic gestures in the apes show us how primal and centrally important empathy is in our own psychology. These new understandings suggest that empathy is a key in the growth of the individual self as well as in the evolution of a species, society, culture, and language.
By understanding ape psychology, we can understand our deepest and most primal human selves. The story lines in the books are fictional. Even though the series humanizes the bonobos by using human scenarios, the photographs in the books clearly show their own capacities for healthy social and emotional interactions.