Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

Talking to apes

Posted: 18 April 2007


Professor Roger and Deborah Fouts interviewed.

Roger and Deborah Fouts, Directors of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) at Central Washington University, Joined us for the launch of our My Mate’s a Primate campaign. They brought a unique perspective on chimpanzee intelligence having for over forty years communicated with chimpanzees using sign language.

Roger and Deborah’s story began in a US laboratory in the 1960’s where as young researchers they were introduced to a chimpanzee, called Washoe, who was being taught American Sign Language for the Deaf. Since then, they have shown that chimpanzees can use sign language to instigate conversations with people and other chimps. The chimpanzees have passed these skills on to their children and have even taught themselves contractions of the verbs we use, and created new combinations of words to describe things.

The Foutses have compiled a huge amount of scientific data, with over 100 articles published in science journals, confirming that chimps are not only genetically close to us, but have comparable intelligence and emotions.

Their experience with the chimps changed how they perceive animals forever. Today, they are dedicated to caring for chimpanzees in captivity and are also members of the US coalition, the Chimpanzee Collaboratory – dedicated like ADI to ending the use of apes in entertainment and labs.

Q: At the launch of our My Mate’s a Primate campaign, you addressed the issue of primate intelligence and sentience, from a remarkable personal perspective. Tell us about this.

D & R: Project Washoe began in 1966 with the infant chimpanzee Washoe, who was raised by Allen and Beatrix Gardner at the University of Nevada, Reno. Washoe was cross-fostered by the Gardners and their students, who used only American Sign Language (ASL) in her presence. She was raised in an environment similar to that of a deaf human child and acquired many signs. Soon after Project Washoe ended in 1970, the Gardners continued their work with other cross-fostered chimpanzees. Moja, Pili, Tatu, and Dar were raised in the same type of environment as Washoe with the addition of deaf human signers to sign with and in the presence of the chimpanzees. This confirmed and expanded on the Gardners’ previous findings with Washoe.

We were involved in this cross-fostering project, where the signs of ASL were used for two-way communication between humans and chimpanzees.
The story of Washoe and her family of signing chimpanzees plays a central role in educating people about the importance of humane treatment, respect for our fellow animals and the need for compassionate activism. Washoe is the first nonhuman animal to ever learn a human language. Her story demonstrates how we are all related to all species and is chronicled in Roger’s book, Next of Kin. The chimpanzee, as a sibling species, dramatically illustrates this point, especially given the fact that our visitors may carry on conversations or observe conversations with the chimpanzees. Through their use of language, Washoe and her chimpanzee family have opened up a new window in which to view, understand and respect the mind of another species.

Q: Is it correct that you have said you would never undertake this kind of research again?

D & R: That is true. We had to recognise that we were a part of a research project, that in the ignorance of the time, was party to a baby being taken from her mother and her mother being killed. It was a project, in its ignorance, that condemned a young girl to a life where she could never fully reach the potential for which she was born, and would always be out-of-place, and would always be considered inferior. It was a project that took a young girl from her culture and family where she could have learned and given so much. It was a project that condemned her to life in prison, even though she had never committed a crime. It is for these reasons that we have publicly stated that we would never support or be a part of such a project again.
We educate at the CHCI, how our species is exploiting its relatives and driving them toward extinction, our responsibility to stop the exploitation and to respect our relatives. Visitors to our educational Chimposium workshops are taught to take the chimpanzees on their terms by requiring them to approach the viewing area as if they are “uninvited guests” with the proper nonverbal submissive tentative behaviour.
We speak out in favour of better “prison” conditions for chimps trapped in captivity, against biomedical research, in favour of sanctuaries, against logging and forest destruction, in favour of protecting preserves, against the bush-meat trade, in favour of poaching patrols, against using apes in entertainment, in favour of The Great Ape Project, and against captive breeding.

Q: When did you realise what a terrible thing was being done to chimpanzees, and why the change of heart?

D & R: Our hearts were changing from the minute we arrived in Oklahoma and when we reached Ellensburg, where we were able to protect this family ourselves, we began speaking out. Our hearts were really broken when we visited Africa for the first time and met free-living chimpanzees, we knew, yet again, that this could have been Washoe’s life if her mother had not been murdered and she kidnapped.

Q: How you can prove that the chimpanzees aren’t merely mimicking you, when it comes to sign language?

D & R: We have published over 100 research articles with numerous controlled studies, as does R. Allen Gardner and our colleague Mary Lee Jensvold and thousands of hours of video taped data. Deborah videotaped the chimpanzees via remote video recording and found that they signed to each other and to themselves without any humans present.

Q: Tell us about Washoe.

D & R: There are four chimpanzees who live at the CHCI Sanctuary: Washoe who was captured in Africa and sold to the US Air Force; Tatu was born at a research lab in Oklahoma; Dar was born at Holloman Air Force base in New Mexico; Loulis was born at Yerkes Primate Center in Georgia. Washoe is 40 years old and an extremely caring and a wonderful mother to her adopted son Loulis as well as to Tatu and Dar.

Friends of Washoe (Friends) was established in 1981, to work for peace between the human species and our fellow animals. Friends’ immediate responsibility is to provide sanctuary (at the CHCI on the campus of Central Washington University), and care for four chimpanzees: Washoe, Loulis, Tatu and Dar. Friends strives to improve captive conditions for our fellow apes, provide them sanctuary from exploitation and abuse, protect free-living chimpanzees from extinction, educate the public about the plight of chimpanzees. All of Friends’ efforts, especially in education and research, strive to enhance the well being and respect for all our fellow animals, with the eminent goal of protecting chimpanzees as individuals and as a species. Ultimately, Friends seeks to play a role in replacing human exploitation with human compassion.

Q: Some researchers seem desperate to dispute your evidence.

D & R: They bought the Cartesian line that humans are superior to all animals, human and nonhuman. By contrast we see that we are all on the same continuum, we are all related.

Q: Campaigners, often ask wistfully, “If only animals could talk” Yet, over thirty years after they talked from their lab cages, the US continues to experiment on chimps, you must wonder what more these animals can do to shake the people that experiment on them.

D & R: Well, talking doesn’t seem to be as important to US researchers as is grant money to fund their biomedical research.

Q: You don’t just care about the smart animals, tell us about your philosophy towards other animals.

D & R: Well, we are all animals, human and non human, we must protect all animals, human and non human.

Q: How did your week in London for the My Mate’s a Primate launch go?

D & R: We were so pleased to have been invited to this special and unique event. We made numerous appearances in the media. We commend ADI for combining all of the current threats to chimpanzees, and indeed other primates, into one campaign and congratulate you on being the first to do this.

Q: A final thought for our readers?

D & R: Washoe, a friend for over 30 years, has taught us that we are both a part of the natural world we share with all our fellow animals. She has taught us that personhood is something we share, and that personhood goes beyond species classifications. She has taught us that human arrogance is lethal to our fellow beings on this planet, especially when combined with human ignorance. She has taught us that the most profound scientific discoveries are often based on the most humble approach. She has taught us that compassion is one of our dearest traits, and that we should value it above all others, including intelligence. She helped us to realise that if we humans do not embrace and respect our fellow species on this planet, then we stand a good chance of destroying the whole thing.

My Mate’s a primate – a campaign to protect our closets relatives in the animal kingdom

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