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Chatting With Chimps in Washington State

ONE AFTERNOON A FEW YEARS AGO, while flicking TV channels, I suddenly stopped, riveted by the image of a man standing next to a cage with tears in his eyes. He was psychology professor Roger Fouts, describing how he had raised the cage's occupant, a chimpanzee named Washoe, as though she were a human child. Washoe wore baby clothes, used diapers until toilet trained, and ate with a spoon. She even learned to "talk" using the gestural lexicon of the deaf, American Sign Language (ASL).

When Washoe grew up, Fouts found her a mate, and she gave birth. Her infant died only weeks later, and the mother's heartbreak was palpable. Each morning Washoe met Fouts, signing "Baby?" to which he responded, "Dead." Finally, unable to console her, he procured a foster infant named Loulis. Presented with the terrified little chimp, clearly not her own, Washoe slumped. That night, however, she sprang up and signed "Come! Hug!" to the sleeping infant, thumping her chest so emphatically that Loulis jolted awake and leaped into her arms.

I fell in love with the story of Washoe and her human father. When I learned that the Earthwatch Institute, a program that allows volunteers to participate in scientific research projects, offered two weeks at Fouts's chimp lab in Washington State, I jumped at the chance.

In preparation, I read Fouts's book, Next of Kin. Fouts had worked with Washoe at a primate institute in Oklahoma. When the director began peddling animals to biomedical facilities, Fouts fled with Washoe and four other signing chimps to Central Washington University. There he established his own center, where his chimps could live free of experimentation.

The Earthwatch volunteers were to examine how the chimps used their spacious new indoor-outdoor quarters on campus-- opened only after a 13-year battle for funding by Fouts and his wife, Deborah. Our findings would help dictate humane guidelines for labs around the country.

Before leaving, I also studied ASL-- wondering how much communication would be possible. "Well, you can ask them if they like snow or how they're feeling," a lab tech explained over the phone, "but you won't be like Roger, who can talk to them about anything."

Wow. Ask a chimp about the weather or her mood?I'd be living a sci-fi novel.

After a plane trip, a cab, and a two-hour bus ride, I finally arrived in the small desert town of Ellensburg. That night, the 10 other Earthwatch volunteers and I introduced ourselves. We ranged from 18-year-old Dacre, sporting a baseball cap and a soul patch, to Betty, a 78-year-old grandmother. Among the rest were Betty's daughter and son-in-law, veterans of 25 Earthwatch expeditions; an animal-rights activist from San Francisco; and a scientist for IBM. We all seemed to envision ourselves as amateur Jane Goodalls-- or Roger Foutses.

The next morning, though, we learned that our primary role was to serve as the chimps' cleaning crew, and not a particularly welcome one. Furthermore, Fouts, as much an attraction as Washoe, was out of town until the end of the week. In his absence, scientist Mary Lee Jensvold drilled us on lab rules: Don't talk about the chimps in their presence (they understand every word). Don't laugh (it sounds like an aggressive bark) or show your teeth when you smile (a grin indicates arousal or fear). Don't put your finger in the cage; you might lose it (chimps aren't mean, just territorial). Don't stare.

"Oh, and one more thing," she said. "Whatever you do, don't react if they spit on you."

Then the scientist softened. Several months pregnant, Mary Lee revealed that the maternal Washoe was fascinated by her belly-- unlike Tatu and Moja, females who had never given birth. Mary Lee's first stop after delivery would be to show Washoe the latest addition to the lab's family.

Finally, we were led into an observation room to meet the five chimps. Washoe was not in the mood for company. Hair bristling, she stood on both legs-- shockingly, she was five feet tall-- and began to swagger. A smile tugged at my lips, but remembering Mary Lee's warning, I kept a straight face and signed "friend." Wham! Washoe slammed the shatterproof window with her fist. Then Dar, a massive male, swung from a hose, hitting the glass with both feet. Mary Lee quickly herded us out.

We barely saw the chimps over the next two days. Armed with hoses and brushes, however, we did get an intimate eyeful of their living quarters. The playrooms and outdoor areas are equipped with toilets, which the chimps use occasionally, but most often they just use the floor. The wire night cages have no toilets, and after cleaning them I vowed to never again complain about my cat's litter box. As we walked down the row that first morning, Loulis pulled a Silence of the Lambs routine, hurling a wad of spit from behind the glass at Shari, a theatrical agent from Canada. Shari handled it as stone-faced as a Spartan, though she worried why she was singled out.

When not doing chores for our hairy employers, we sat in a classroom and watched home movies to learn to tell them apart. After three days of this, several members of our group dropped out. Morale was low. As I passed my ID tests, however, I anticipated hanging out with the chimps. And little by little, we began to witness them "talk."

One morning shortly after Halloween, Tatu, a chimp with an acute awareness of the calendar, asked for Thanksgiving turkey by signing "bird meat." Dar requested "more" toothpaste as he brushed his teeth in the morning. Washoe, asked the name of a picture she'd drawn-- a small green scribble no better or worse than any two-year-old's-- replied "berry."

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