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Signing chimpanzees from Ellensburg settling in well in Quebec

Loulis, one of the signing chimpanzees formerly housed at Central Washington University, is making friends in a Quebec sanctuary. (FILE)
Loulis, one of the signing chimpanzees formerly housed at Central Washington University, is making friends in a Quebec sanctuary. (FILE)

ELLENSBURG – Tatu and Loulis, two sign-language-using chimpanzees formerly housed on Central Washington University’s campus, are integrating well into their new home at the Fauna Foundation sanctuary in Quebec, according to Mary Lee Jensvold, director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute.

“They’ve been socializing from afar with the other chimps that are there,” she said. “We feel really lucky we were able to get them there. We couldn’t have asked it to be any better.”

The two chimps lived at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at CWU until moving to the Fauna sanctuary in late August.

Their new home at the sanctuary has about a dozen chimpanzees and has ample space. The more than 200-acre sanctuary has a lake, river, fields, protected wetlands and a small wooded area with native animals.

The sanctuary has multiple enclosures that allow for controlled mingling of different groups of chimps, giving them the opportunity to interact with other chimps while keeping them safe.

The two chimps live in a space designed for older chimpanzees – Tatu is 38 and Loulis is 35 – near the entry to the sanctuary.

Both chimps, especially Loulis, a Fauna update said, like to sit at a window and greet visitors.

Jensvold said the 90-day quarantine period mandated by the Canadian government to keep Tatu and Loulis separated from the rest of the sanctuary should be over soon, and they’re already interacting with their sanctuary mates.

“Tatu is a very charismatic young lady, and Loulis, he’s already got some boy buddies,” she said.

They are the last two of a family of five signing chimps who lived at the institute in Ellensburg. The other three have since died – Dar, the most recent, about a year ago – leaving an untenable social situation for the remaining chimps, who in the wild might live in extended family groups numbering in the dozens.

The chimpanzees’ age, along with the requirements to upgrade the center to possibly bring in more chimps, factored into the decision to move Tatu and Loulis to Canada.

Friends of Washoe, the nonprofit group named for the family’s matriarch, oversees Tatu and Loulis. The group paid to move the chimps to another sanctuary rather than wait on the possibility of a remodel of the institute that would allow room for more chimps.

Tatu and Loulis flew out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, under light sedation, on a chartered jet to Quebec in August. The Friends of Washoe and CWU don’t plan on bringing more chimpanzees to Ellensburg.


Friends of Washoe sent most of the chimps’ belongings to make the transition easier, according to Fauna’s founder, Gloria Grow, on Fauna’s blog. The chimps have their cups, cargo nets, blankets, clothes and even old tires from the institute with them in Quebec.

People even sent gifts for Tatu and Loulis, including Canadian flags. Loulis used one of the flags as nesting material at his new home and has carried a smaller flag with him.

They’re also enjoying the food, Jensvold said.

“The Canadians, very kindly, had an American (Thanksgiving) celebration. … They got a two for one this year because Canada’s Thanksgiving was in October,” she said.

Some members of the Fauna sanctuary staff have previous experience with the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, and at least one interpreter is around daily to communicate with them using sign language.

Two students from CWU have been at Fauna recording the transition and providing translation help, and Jensvold said there are plans to send another student there for winter quarter.

The staff is trying to learn American Sign Language, and Fauna hopes to hire someone who can sign. One staffer knows French sign language, which is a start, Grow said.

Tatu, Grow said, calls them “stupid,” but she has gotten more patient.

Loulis learned sign language from the family of chimps at CHCI, and since chimps tend to use gestures anyway, Jensvold said it is possible Tatu and Loulis might teach ASL to other chimps at Fauna.

“We have seen Tatu and Loulis are both signing to the other chimps, so from the perspective of research and cultural transmission, this is fascinating,” she said, adding it’s good that institute-trained students have been at Fauna to observe the move.

“At this point I’m just trying to gather enough data so we’ve got something that’s publishable,” she said.