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Chatting With Chimps in Washington State

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.


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