03 November 2007

My visit with Washoe and her family

On 21 June 2003 I attended a "Chimposium" (special chimpanzee seminar) at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) in Bellingham, Washington -- the home of the recently-deceased sign-language pioneer Washoe and three other signing chimpanzees. It was literally a one-of-a-kind experience; to my knowledge, no other institution involved in ape language research offers this kind of educational package to the general public.

The main facility at CHCI, which is part of Central Washington University, consists of a single large specially-designed building, the majority of which is occupied by an open-space area open to the sky (though escape-proof) where the chimpanzees live. Their living area also includes some indoor rooms. The human section of the structure consists of some offices, a lecture room, areas for observing the chimpanzees, and so forth. CHCI was founded by, and is still headed by, Dr. Roger Fouts, a pioneer in the field of ape communication using American Sign Language (ASL).

Washoe, the first ape ever to learn ASL, was brought to the US from Africa as a baby and raised by humans – mostly by Dr. Fouts. Tatu, the other female in the group, is slightly younger than Washoe and is the smallest individual in the group. The two males are both significantly younger. Loulis was adopted by Washoe when he was a baby, and learned ASL from her rather than from humans – the first case of an ape teaching a human language to another ape. Dar is the largest member of the group (taking after his father, who was the largest chimpanzee in captivity at 235 pounds), but has a rather shy personality. The group formerly included another female, Moja, who died in 2002 at the age of 29. A plaque and floral display in memory of Moja is located next to the path leading to the entrance to CHCI.

There are two kinds of "Chimposium". The basic Chimposium is held every Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon and is one hour in length. It includes basic information on chimpanzees and about CHCI, and one visit with the chimpanzees. The advanced Chimposium, held approximately one Saturday per month, lasts all afternoon. It includes much more specialized and detailed lectures as well as two chimpanzee visits. The basic Chimposium is a prerequisite for the advanced one; I went to both on the same day. The basic Chimposium that day had at least twenty attendees, the advanced one about a dozen.

It needs to be emphasized that CHCI is not run like a zoo; rather, it is an example of the best available solution to the problem of what to do with chimpanzees who have lived for all or most of their lives in human-controlled environments, mostly for the purposes of scientific research or entertainment. Such chimpanzees would find it almost impossible to adapt to life in the wild in Africa; they know nothing about jungle survival skills or wild chimpanzee culture, and would be extremely unlikely ever to be accepted as members of existing wild chimpanzee communities. A number of sanctuaries exist in various parts of the United States, where chimpanzees who have been "retired" from use by humans can live in environments designed as best as possible to allow them to behave in the ways that are natural to them. CHCI is essentially one such sanctuary. Its residents live under conditions where they can get plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, and can socialize or be alone, as they choose. With the exception of the Chimposiums (which serve to raise money as well as to provide education), CHCI is not open to the public. Some research does go on there, but the Institute’s philosophy is that the needs and preferences of the chimpanzees come first – they may cooperate with research projects or not, as they choose. While it is vastly superior to the awful conditions in which most chimpanzees in captivity live, CHCI is not an ideal environment for them, as its own staff acknowledges. The total volume of space in which they reside is not much bigger than a large house, and they can never go outside it (chimpanzees in the wild are accustomed to roving for miles each day as they search for food). But since humans cannot give these creatures back the natural lives which were taken from them, sanctuaries such as CHCI are the best that can be done for them.

The first lecture was accompanied by a short video of the late Moja engaged in various activities including, incongruously, cleaning her teeth with dental floss. All the chimpanzees at CHCI floss and brush regularly, gaining the same benefits in dental health as humans do.

The lectures covered basic chimpanzee anatomy and behavior, the history of CHCI and of Dr. Fouts’s earlier involvement with ape language research, and similar topics. Most of the lectures were accompanied by videos. One of these showed an arresting incident which is described in Dr. Fouts’s book Next of Kin. One of the original chimpanzees in the early ASL project was an amiable young male named Booee, whom Fouts came to regard as a friend. At the age of fourteen (equivalent to roughly twenty in a human) Booee was transferred to LEMSIP, a biomedical research lab in New York state (Fouts did not own the chimpanzees in the ASL project or have legal control of them, so he was unable to prevent this). Thirteen years later he visited LEMSIP as part of the filming of a TV documentary on ape biomedical research. Despite the long separation, Booee recognized him immediately and began signing at him. The two had an intense interaction for several minutes; when Fouts had to depart, leaving Booee once again alone in his barren cage at the lab, the chimpanzee visibly slumped in despair. The TV documentary camera recorded the whole scene and it was included in one of the tapes shown at the Chimposium. I have seen humans conversing in ASL, and watching Fouts and Booee signing after their long separation, it was perfectly obvious that this was a true conversation between members of two different intelligent species. (The scene evidently had a similarly electrifying effect when the documentary was aired. The network was deluged with donations from people wanting to help buy Booee out of the lab, while LEMSIP was inundated with protest mail. Five months later, not only Booee but eight other chimpanzees from the lab were "retired" to a sanctuary in California.)

The most disquieting lecture concerned what is known as the "bushmeat crisis". Bushmeat is a term for the meat of large, exotic forest animals, including apes. In many parts of Africa, bushmeat hunting is being carried out on such a scale that it has overtaken habitat destruction as the greatest threat to the very survival of chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. It is not subsistence hunting, but for market; bushmeat actually commands higher prices per pound than the meat of conventional domesticated food animals. It has become a high-status luxury food among central Africa’s small middle-class population. It is even exported to Europe, despite being illegal there, with several tons arriving in London alone each year (I strongly suspect that the main consumers there are people of African origin, not indigenous Europeans). A video which accompanied this lecture, filmed partly in African meat markets, was quite gruesome; in particular, two bonobo carcasses, which had been smoked whole rather than being butchered first, bore a grisly resemblance to charred human corpses.

Due to bushmeat hunting and habitat destruction by the exploding human population (tropical Africa now holds over three hundred million humans and fewer than three hundred thousand apes), it is estimated that the chimpanzee will become extinct in the wild within the next twenty years. This would leave the few thousand captive chimpanzees in labs, zoos, and sanctuaries as the sole representatives of their kind – and the elaborate cultures of the wild chimpanzee communities, along with the wealth of insights they could offer us about the development of human behavior and ways of life, would be irretrievably lost.

The chimpanzee visits – three in all – were an intense experience. Beforehand, the staff gave the attendees some tips on how to behave. Standing completely upright, showing one’s upper teeth, and waving one’s arms are all interpreted by chimpanzees as aggressive behavior; a hunched posture and keeping the upper teeth covered are preferred. The actual observation area is a long room with large windows to allow viewing of the chimpanzees’ outdoor enclosure and two of their indoor rooms. These windows, for reasons which rapidly became obvious, are made of inch-thick bulletproof glass. The chimpanzees have the option of going to other rooms which are not visible from the observation area, if they do not wish to "meet" the Chimposium attendees; however, in all three of the visits when I was there, most of them remained in the visible rooms.

The chimpanzees are familiar with the CHCI staff, but as the lecturer explained, they react very differently to humans who are strangers to them. For the first few minutes of each of the first two visits, they became very visibly agitated. Washoe, as the dominant individual, made several impressive displays: rearing up at full height with all her hair puffed out, she screeched, charged, and thumped on the glass windows with her fists with an intimidatingly loud impact eloquent of the vastly superior physical strength of her species. Loulis engaged in similar behavior to a lesser extent. Had we not known the glass was unbreakable, these aggressive displays would actually have been extremely frightening. Their purpose is to assert dominance over strangers within what the chimpanzees consider their home. (The reason chimpanzees in zoos do not behave this way toward visitors is that they do not feel dominant in the zoo environment; they feel dominated by the zookeepers, and by extension by humans in general.) It seems very unlikely that Washoe and Loulis felt seriously threatened by us or wanted to commit real violence; Tatu napped undisturbed through one of these displays, while Dar largely ignored them.

After a few minutes, when the apes apparently felt they had made their point, they calmed down. Tatu napped or played, Dar hung out at the back end of the room, and Washoe went back to leafing through the magazine which she had been looking at (chimpanzees cannot read, but they like looking at pictures – Washoe was said to be especially partial to shoe catalogs). Loulis took a more active interest in the visitors, staying at the front of the room, right near the glass separating him from us, through which he studied us with what seemed to be wary curiosity.

Many people think of chimpanzees as being small, "cute" animals, but this is because they have seen them only in movies or TV com-mercials or similar entertainment settings, and the chimpanzees used in such situations are almost always small children. Older chimpanzees are much more difficult and dangerous to handle due to their intelligence and great strength. The adults at CHCI are large, almost as large as adult humans, and even give a somewhat hulking impression up close. I did experience the feeling many primatologists note: when you meet an ape up close and the ape is not acting in a threatening way, it feels much more like being in the presence of a person than of an animal. They look and act far more like humans than like dogs, monkeys, etc.

At the end of the advanced Chimposium the attendees were given a light dinner, which we ate while watching the chimpanzees having their own dinner on closed-circuit TV. I was struck by the thoroughness of the precautions the staff took, while giving the chimpanzees their food, to avoid getting even momentarily into a position where they could be grabbed by one of them. There is no such thing as a "tame" or "domesticated" chimpanzee, and even individuals as thoroughly habituated to humans as these, so it seemed, were not to be fully trusted – just as, perhaps, no human being who was being held captive for life could be totally trusted to never try to harm his captors, no matter how humane and well-intentioned the captivity.

By coincidence, 21 June happened to be the date CHCI celebrated as Washoe’s birthday (since she was born in the wild in Africa, her exact birthday is unknown; the date was an estimate). Every year on her birthday Washoe received a bouquet of roses sent by an anonymous admirer. On the day of the Chimposium I attended, the roses duly arrived and were given to Washoe at dinnertime. She devoured them slowly, one at a time, savoring her dessert.



Blogger tina said...

I was so engrossed in this post, I wish it would have been a book so I could pick it up later and read it. I love chimps and all animals, but this story hits home, my son is deaf. Do you have more stories like these? It felt like I was right there.

03 November, 2007 19:52  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

This was truly a one-of-a-kind experience for me, but I can recommend Dr. Fouts's book Next of Kin, and also Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh for further exploration of the subject. Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics is also very interesting.

Does your son know ASL? Deaf people have an unusual distinction -- their language (and it is a real language, not just a system for encoding English into gestures) has served as the main means by which we humans have established communication with the other four intelligent species which share this planet with us.

03 November, 2007 20:59  
Blogger mendip said...

A great posting - thanks!

04 November, 2007 04:50  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

And thanks for linking to it!

04 November, 2007 06:47  
Blogger tina said...

Yes, my son knows ASL. But, through the years, he and others seem to talk in a "different" sign language. Some things are the same, but it seems that they have one sign for a whole sentence..:)"short hand?" :)
Thanks for the book recommendations.

05 November, 2007 07:04  

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