Chatting With Chimps in Washington State
Published: June 2009
By Gini Sikes
An Earthwatch program gives a volunteer an unforgettable chance to talk to the animals
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."
At week's end Roger Fouts returned, entering the chimp area to a joyful chorus of hoots. Washoe clung to the bars for a quick kiss and a stick of gum.
The next morning we gathered with him and his wife, Deborah, to watch the chimps eat breakfast, via closed-circuit TV. We dined on the same fare: banana bread, fruit smoothies, and, for those who wanted to sample it, monkey chow. (It tastes like dry cereal.) Fouts won't serve the chimps anything he himself wouldn't eat. During cage cleanup that day, he scrubbed alongside us.
The lessons never stopped. When a volunteer referred to the chimps as "monkeys," Fouts immediately corrected her: "That's a bigger mistake than if you called them 'humans.' They're more closely related to you or me than to monkeys or gorillas. We share 98.4 percent of our DNA."
Still, Fouts expresses guilt for his role in raising chimps as humans. He worries what will become of them after his death-- Loulis, the youngest at 19, could live to be 60-- so he and his wife, with the approval of their three children, have signed a life insurance policy over to Washoe's family. His ultimate dream is that the chimpanzees be left alone in Africa (not likely, for if the human population continues to encroach on them, the 250,000 on the continent will be extinct in 30 years).
I asked Fouts whether Washoe, after all the cuddling she experienced as a young chimp, misses human contact, even if she is now six times stronger than a man. "I can't tell you the last time my thirty-year-old son wanted to sit in my lap," he replied. "Washoe is now thirty-three, an adult. She'll run over to give me a hug if I've been away for a while-- or she won't."
The Earthwatchers listened to Fouts, mesmerized, and returned to work with renewed spirit. When Loulis again spit at Shari, this time without much enthusiasm, she feared she was becoming old hat.
Things continued to pick up during data collection the second week. Tatu, who has the unsettling habit of wearing a mask of a human face, signed "lipstick" to Marcee, a lab technician. She complied, painting Tatu's black lips bright red. Dar looked up, saw the girls grooming, and returned to his magazine. The chimps spend hours paging through magazines, and especially catalogues-- the ones selling food and shoes are their favorites. National Geographic they find a resounding bore.
Loulis bonded with 18-year-old Dacre. He would search for Dacre among us, then sign "Chase!" inviting him to run past the glass in mock pursuit. Loulis also signed "shoe" at everyone, gesturing for us to remove ours and let him pretend to tickle our feet through the glass. (This display wasn't necessarily affectionate, Fouts told us. Loulis just likes stupid human tricks.) And Loulis still hurled a wad at Shari at every opportunity, but by now she viewed it as an honor.
Such interactions made me begin to look forward to cage cleaning. Washoe's brown eyes now watched placidly while we worked, motivating me to make her home as nice as possible. On the last day, I knew I had changed when, informed that I wouldn't have to clean, I actually felt disappointed.
Later that day we assembled for our farewell to Washoe, Tatu, Moja, Loulis, and Dar. No one wanted to go. As we were leaving, Loulis frantically gestured to Shari to approach the glass. She crouched down and prepared for the usual show of saliva, but instead he offered a different kind of big, sloppy, wet one-- a kiss.
GINI SIKES is the author of 8 Ball Chicks: A Year in the Violent World of Girl Gangsters (Doubleday/Anchor).
lions and tigers and bears . . .
March through November, Earthwatch Institute offers two-week stays at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute ($1,595 contribution). Few trips provide a similar chance to "talk" to the animals, but many other options exist. Typical offerings:
Earthwatch Institute (800/776-0188) matches paying volunteers with scientists all over the planet. Land of the Snow Leopard: Search for ways the majestic cat can adapt to encroaching humans in the Himalayas. Komodo Dragons: If you dare, come to Indonesia and face the world's largest living reptiles, then try to trap them-- for study, that is. Wild Horses of Assateague: Learn how these horses have survived on a remote Maryland island for almost 400 years.
Oceanic Society Expeditions (800/326-7491) sponsors biologist-led trips to study aquatic habitats. Suriname Sea Turtles: Patrol the beaches of the Galibi Nature Reserve by moonlight to count the turtle population. Seabirds of the Midway Atoll: Work with biologists documenting the life cycles of the black-footed albatross, red-tailed tropic bird, black noddy, and others on this Pacific island.
Sierra Club Outings (415/977-5522) has sponsored environmental trips since 1901. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary: Lend a hand during the busy fall migration season in the Appalachians. Wolf Tracking in the Blue Range Wilderness: Follow three pairs of Mexican wolves that were released into the wild last March.