Woman talking into mic

Bonnie Harris (left) of Gander, Newfoundland, and Columbus Zoo official Audra Meinelt take part in a Dec. 5 preview of Come From Away, a musical about the Canadian town’s kindness to airline passengers who were forced to land there following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Harris helped to care for animals who were among the passengers, including a bonobo on its way to the zoo. (Photos by Richard Ades)

On Sunday, Dec. 5, dozens of theater lovers gathered at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Africa Event Center to hear about the strange connection between the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a remote Canadian town and the zoo itself. In a related activity, some of them also gathered outside an animal habitat earlier that afternoon to watch the playful (and often X-rated) antics of the little-known apes known as bonobos.

What brought both humans and apes together was Come From Away, a touring production that will play the Ohio Theatre Feb. 8-13. The Broadway musical tells what happened when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks halted all air travel and forced 38 planes to make unscheduled landings in Gander, Newfoundland. There, about 7,000 travelers became the guests of the town’s 9,000 residents, who helped to feed and house them until they were allowed to continue on their way several days later. 

“This is about what happens when people take care of other people,” Sue Frost, the show’s producer, told the Dec. 5 crowd. “It is really a tribute to humanity.” 

How was the Columbus Zoo involved in all this? The diverted planes were carrying not only people but a smattering of animals, including two bonobos who were on their way from Belgium to Ohio. One of them was to be sent on to Milwaukee, but the other, a female named Unga, was destined for the Columbus Zoo. There, she became such a beloved resident that the memory of her March 2021 death still brings tears to the eyes of Audra Meinelt, curator of the zoo’s Congo Expedition region. 

She “was very, very special,” Meinelt told folks standing outside the bonobo enclosure, where a couple of Unga’s offspring were among the fun-loving apes eating, swinging and sometimes copulating within. A few of them could also be seen playing with blue and gold paper chains that had been assembled to honor Come From Away’s official colors. Obviously, the zoo was going all out to promote its connection to the musical. 

What was left unsaid on Dec. 5, but no doubt was on the minds of many, was that the promotional effort was a welcome opportunity to change the topic from the bad publicity the zoo had received in recent months. First, there was the news uncovered by The Columbus Dispatch that top officials had been misusing zoo assets. Second, and even more damaging, was the allegation of the 2021 documentary The Conservation Game that former zoo director Jack Hanna had often appeared on TV with exotic animals obtained from unscrupulous sources. The dual scandals had cost the Columbus Zoo its accreditation with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. 

Held just one day before the arrival of Tom Schmid—whom the zoo had hired as its new president and CEO in a bid to turn things around—the Come From Away preview gave staffers the chance to talk about one of the important things the institution does: Namely, it houses a large contingent of bonobos, a species of great ape that is in danger of extinction due to hunting and the loss of habitat in its native land, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Standing outside the bonobos’ habitat, Meinelt said the zoo tries to accommodate their natural behavior, including allowing them to periodically change what group or individual they hang out with, as they would in the wild. “They do what they want to do, and we listen,” she said. Staffers also work to keep the apes’ minds active by challenging them to obtain treats by solving puzzles, some of which involve the use of computers. 

Meinelt related that when Unga and the other U.S.-bound bonobo were diverted to Gander, they had to remain inside their crates in the airport hangar during the entire five-day layover. However, they dealt with the situation well, she said, even pushing their feces and excess food out through the bars so their handlers could dispose of them. “Bonobos are really smart,” she concluded. 

Meinelt also praised the Gander officials who rose to the unexpected challenge, including Bonnie Harris, who was present at the Dec. 5 event and is actually depicted in the musical. As manager of the Gander and Area Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Harris helped to make sure all of the planes’ non-human passengers—including two members of an obscure species of ape—received the proper care. The zoo was so grateful for the town’s generosity that when Unga had a son two years later, he was named Gander.

“We’ve never ever had such a connection with a place,” Meinelt said, “because the residents of Gander have always remembered Unga and always remembered that they had a namesake here.”

Broadway in Columbus will present Come From Away Feb. 8-13 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased at the CBUSArts Ticket Office (39 E. State St.), online at or by phone at 614-469-0939.

Bonobos believe in making love, not war 

Along with chimpanzees, bonobos are humans’ closest living relative, sharing more than 99 percent of our DNA. But though they look much like chimps to the untrained eye, their social habits set them apart from both their fellow apes and their human cousins. 

These differences make it ironic that two bonobos were caught up in the chaos that followed the 9/11 attacks. Unlike humans or, for that matter, chimps, bonobos don’t kill others of their own kind. Therefore, they would never be involved in something as barbaric as terrorism, war or murder, all of which regularly plague mankind.

Sexual assault also is a no-no among bonobos, largely because their groups are led by female friends who band together to keep the larger males in check. In other words, bonobo society is matriarchal, not patriarchal, a fact that sets them apart from both chimps and humans.

On the other hand, consensual sexual activity is plentiful among bonobos, as many embarrassed parents can attest to after taking their children to see the apes at the zoo. And the sex is not simply for procreation, as it can take place between individuals of any age or gender. Sometimes it simply serves to soothe hurt feelings or lower tensions in the group. 

Talking about the endangered species during the Dec. 5 Come From Away preview at the Columbus Zoo, staff member Audra Meinelt said one reason bonobos lead such a peaceful existence is that they’re geographically separated from other great apes such as gorillas or chimpanzees, so they don’t have to compete for food. But she added that they also have a special talent that helps them deal with the aggressive tendencies that are common to all apes.

“What they’re really unique at is making up,” Meinelt said. “So it’s not uncommon to see them get ‘comfy’ with each other and then come together and hug and groom one another and really sort of soothe over those feelings.”

“They just are really, really good at making up.”

One of the Columbus Zoo’s bonobos eyes gawking visitors while enjoying an afternoon snack.