How will a chimp respond when a conversation hits a bump? Marilee Jensvold wants to find out.
She points to a picture of a juicy hamburger and asks Tatu, a chimpanzee versed in sign language, what it is.
“Food,” signs Tatu. Marilee pretends not to understand, so Tatu tries again: “Food.”
Marilee signs, “I don’t understand.”
After the third try Tatu pauses, looks at the hamburger, glances up at Marilee, and tries another tack: “Sandwich.”
Jensvold, a Ph.D. student at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, and Tatu, a laboratoryborn chimp, are part of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute on the grounds of the CWU campus.
Humans and chimps have been chatting in Ellensburg since 1980 when researchers Deborah and Roger Fouts - along with five chimps trained in American Sign Language - moved here from Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies.
The group’s matriarch is 29-yearold Washoe. Captured in the jungles of West Africa for use in the U.S. space program, Washoe was taught sign language in the 1960s. She mastered over 200 individual signs and a variety of combinations, like “Hurry give me toothbrush” and “Baby in my drink” (the latter when a doll was placed in her drinking mug). Washoe established an international reputation as the first non-human animal to learn a human language.
In 1994 the Institute began hosting weekly “Chimposiums” to introduce the public to Washoe and the other chimps (Dar, Loulis, Moja, and Tatu). The goal, says co-director Deborah Fouts, is to generate interest in an animal fast disappearing in the wild. “Also,” says Fouts, “it’s rare that you get the chance to meet someone that’s first in a field. Washoe was the first.”
On a more immediate level, the Chimposiums pay for the animals’ upkeep, providing them with food, vitamins and medical care. They also permit human visitors to enter the world of an intelligent and complex animal.
Each session begins with a brief introduction by a docent. Ours, a CWU drama teacher, teaches us a smattering of ASL terms which the chimps use, then briefs us on the history of Project Washoe. Begun in 1967 when Washoe was an infant, it’s the first and longest-running of the ape language experiments.
Before we enter the observation area, we’re taught the rules of polite chimpanzee society. Hide your teeth when you smile. Don’t stand up straight. Bob your head and offer a bent wrist, both signs of submission among chimps. These are territorial animals, and we’re about to stride right into their living room.
We enter the viewing area - wrists bent, heads bobbing like pigeons - and quickly take our seats. Two of the chimps, black fur bristling, charge the window and kick it with a glancing blow. Washoe sees the commotion and draws near, thrashing a beat-up cardboard box in warning. “This plate glass is pretty strong,” assures Jennifer, the graduate student who serves as our ASL interpreter.
Chimps are five times stronger than humans, with dense bones and thick leathery skin. Nobody enters the enclosure with the animals, although the Institute’s volunteers and researchers interact with them through a wire screen when the chimps ask to be tickled or groomed.
The chimps decide they’ve made their point and relax a bit. Washoe approaches the window again, brushes a furry paw across her forehead, then makes a few gestures and points at a pair of sneakers.
“She’s asking to look at your shoe,” Jennifer tells a teenage boy who has come to the Chimposium with his father. As he nears the window, Washoe gestures, then shakes her right wrist. “Off. Hurry. Hurry. Off,” translates Jennifer. “She’d like you to take your shoe off,” she explains, “but don’t feel you have to. Asking to see someone’s shoe is sort of an icebreaker for Washoe.” Washoe, it seems, is very fond of shoes; browsing through a glossy shoe catalog is one of her favorite activities.
The chimps are indoors today. They have a spacious grassy play area outside, also visible to guests, crammed with things to swing from and climb on, even a cave to hide in. But it’s cold this morning so they’ve opted to stay inside.
It’s a strange scene. One chimp lies on the floor, leafing through a magazine. Two more seem to be arguing over a blanket. There’s a toilet in the corner, sweaters available if the animals want to go outdoors, and a chimp at the window telling us to take off our shoes.
We don’t need Jane Goodall to tell us these are not typical chimp behaviors. With the exception of Washoe, the chimps were born in captivity and raised as hearingimpaired children. Some were taught to use toilets, others to wear clothing. Washoe didn’t meet another chimp until she was 5 years old. When asked to identify her first chimp, she signed “black bug.”
Although they’ve grown up in a human world, the chimps haven’t been forced to communicate in human terms. They’ve learned sign language not through drills and rewards, but through seeing it spoken in their environment, as human children learn language.
Back at the Chimposium, Loulis is at the window. Loulis was adopted by Washoe when his mother was unable to care for him. Up until the age of five, researchers didn’t use sign language in his presence as a test to see what he would learn from the other chimps, Loulis mastered 55 different signs, each of which he pronounces with his own distinctive accent.
Loulis leans down to rest his chin on the ledge. It’s dusted with white fur, and his muzzle is spattered with freckles. At 17, he’s the youngest of the group. (Chimps aren’t fully mature until they reach 21.) Most of the signs that he uses, both with chimps and humans, relate to play.
Loulis points a stubby finger at one of the visitors, then smacks his right paw against his left arm. “He’s saying ‘Chase,’ ” says Jennifer. This is Loulis’ favorite game - convincing someone to come to the window and run alongside it while he races by on the other side of the glass. But our group is shy, and none of us takes him up on the offer.
As we watch Loulis watching us, it’s easy to believe we know what he’s thinking, his expressions seem so familiar. According to scientists, chimps share an estimated 99.6 percent of our genetic composition. That similarity has made them popular candidates for language studies.
Unfortunately - for the chimps - it’s also subjected them to extensive medical testing. Of the 2,000 chimpanzees in the U.S., only 300 are in zoos and private homes; the rest are in laboratories.
In the first full year of operation, nearly 1,000 people attended Chimposiums, most of them children. On occasion, hearing-impaired children have attended the workshops. For those children, says Deborah Fouts, docents translate their opening remarks into ASL. “But once the kids get in with the chimps, they don’t need interpretation.”
One of the benefits of the Institute’s research has been the development of treatments for human children who don’t communicate, such as autistic children.
The abilities of Washoe and the other chimps are the subject of lively debate. Some claim the animals simply mimic human behavior in exchange for a reward. The Foutses, among others, argue that the chimps use signs not just to communicate with treat-bearing humans, but with each other, children, other animals, and - as Washoe does when leafing through a shoe catalog - to themselves.
They also invent phrases for new objects. The first time she tasted fruit leather, Washoe named it “nut berry paper,” Tatu calls it “fruit blanket.” Chimps can learn to understand vocal English, and even transmit their language skills to the next generation.
The debate over chimp abilities raises a larger question. Is language a uniquely human trait, or could other species learn to speak a human language?
A visit to CWU’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute is a rare opportunity to meet an intriguing group of animals at the center of that debate. And if Loulis invites you to join him in a game of chase, take him up on it.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go Where: The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute is located at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, on the corner of D Street and 14th Avenue. When: Chimposiums are held Saturdays at 9:15 a.m. and 10:45 a.m., and Sundays at 12:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. Weekday sessions for groups of 20 or more can be arranged by phoning ahead. Costs: The cost of attending a Chimposium is $10 per person, $7.50 for students and children. Reservations are suggested. Information: For more information on the Chimposiums, or for information about volunteer opportunities, phone (509) 963-2244.