'My Best Friend is a Chimp'

One-On-One With Our Closest Cousins

It was exactly 33 years ago that I first met of one of my oldest and dearest friends. To this day, the most outstanding aspect of her personality remains a quality I noticed the very first time I laid eyes on her: She is one of the most caring and compassionate people I know. She's also a chimpanzee. I first encountered Washoe during an interview with R. Mien Gardner, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist at the University of Nevada at Reno. Gardner was seeking assistants to teach his young chimp American Sign Language (ASL); I was desperately seeking a graduate assistantship to help fund my studies in experimental psychology.

The interview did not go particularly well. My research background in clinical psychology and my interest in philosophy--"soft" subjects, according to Gardner--did not impress the tough-minded scientist, known for his strict laboratory methods and mathematical precision. As Gardner ended the meeting, he asked if I wanted to meet Washoe. I was sure I had lost any chance of scoring the job, but I said yes nonetheless. Gardner and I strolled across the Reno campus toward a play yard enclosed by a 4-foot-high chain link fence. Within, two people were playing with what seemed to be a human infant. At first sight of us, the child began running across the yard towards us. It was then that I realized that this "child" was actually Washoe, a 2-year-old chimpanzee. She reached the fence and, without breaking stride, leaped over the top, landed in my arms and gave me a big hug. Gardner seemed as surprised as I was: Washoe had chosen a complete stranger to embrace over her surrogate father. I could think of no one who needed a hug more at that moment than I did. That first glimpse of Washoe's seeming capacity for empathy not only foreshadowed how much I would eventually learn about the complex inner lives of chimpanzees. It also got me the job.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Chimps, Our Closest Cousins

In the past few decades, scientific evidence on chimps and other nonhuman primates has poured in to support one basic fact: We have much more in common with the apes than most people care to believe. Often cited is the statistic that humans have 98.4% of the same DNA as chimps, humans having branched off from chimpanzees just six million years ago on the evolutionary tree. Research suggests that, like us, chimps are highly intelligent, cooperative and sometimes violent primates who nurture family bonds, adopt orphans, mourn the death of mothers, practice self-medication, struggle for power and wage war. And that only makes sense, because the chimp brain and the human brain both evolved from the same brain-that of our common ape ancestor. The mental processes inside these two brains have become specialized as they adapted to different social needs over six million years, but they still share the same underlying ancestral intelligence.

In the past year alone, numerous studies have highlighted our remarkable likeness not only to chimps, but to monkeys and apes of all kinds. A 1999 Columbia study conducted by psychologist Herbert Terrace, Ph.D., showed that rhesus monkeys have rudimentary arithmetic skills, and that they can think using symbols. The Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center released a study in April indicating that capuchin monkeys work together to gather food and then share the fruits of their labor; head researcher Frans de Waal, Ph.D., suggests that this kind of cooperation may be an essential element of human society. And a study published last May in the journal Nature by famed chimpanzee researchers Jane Goodall, Ph.D., and Andrew Whiten, Ph.D., shows that chimpanzees engage in more behaviors than are necessary for mere survival, and that these behaviors-which range from using rocks as hammers to crack nuts to not using tools at all--vary geographically, sound evidence that chimps might have region-specific cultures.

Washoe herself has been the subject of groundbreaking and seminal studies on primate communication. She was the very first nonhuman to learn a human language ASL. Cameras have recorded her signing with other chimps with no humans present, and she even passed her second language on to her adopted son.

But I don't need to read clinical studies or technical research texts to see that chimps behave much like we do. After 30 years of conversing with and observing chimpanzees--watching them closely and interacting with them on a day-to-day basis-I'm more convinced than ever that chimp and human minds are fundamentally alike.

Many scientists beg to differ. In March, for example, Drew Rendall, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Canada's University of Lethbridge, and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Comparative Psychology showing that baboons don't respond to each others' calls--mother baboons don't even return the calls of their lost infants. Rendall offers this as "proof" that nonhuman primates lack "theory of mind," or the ability to infer another being's thoughts and feelings. The problem with this logic: Scientists often attempt to compare ape, monkey and chimp minds to human minds. When they don't match up, the researchers assume that their intellects are completely unlike ours.

Certainly, humans and chimpanzees differ in intellectual ability. But what differs is their degree of intelligence, not the kind of mental processes they employ. There is no bold line separating human intelligence from chimp intelligence.

My careful observations of chimps, comparing their specific behaviors to those of humans, have shown me that our thoughts and actions overlap in many ways. These up-close-and-personal experiences have given me proof of their compassion, their cooperation, their empathy, their duplicity. The reason that chimps are the frequent subjects of scientific experiments is the very reason that testing land inferior treatment is wrong: More than just our biological cousins, they are also our psychological and emotional cousins.

Natural Nurturers

One of the emotional traits that people deem most uniquely "human" is empathy. Yet empathy is one of Washoe's most obvious personal characteristics. From day one, I had already seen traces of Washoe's ability to react to other creatures' feelings--namely, mine. But I truly detected her compassion in 1970, when Gardner's entire research unit moved to the Oklahoma Institute of Primate Studies. Here, Washoe was no longer the baby of the family but was now living with chimpanzees a few years younger than herself. The Institute was a sort of home for wayward chimpanzees, so there were always young chimps coming and going. Soon, Washoe seemed to feel responsible for the young transplants, perhaps because she had been one herself. (She had been "wild-collected" from Africa at an early age by the U.S. space program, where she would've become a subject in medical experiments had the Gardners not taken to her during a visit to the program.)

One of the new arrivals, Bruno, had come to Oklahoma after participating in Herbert Terrace's failed language project in New York. He had been raised by humans since birth, so he wasn't trained in basic chimpanzee survival skills or accustomed to the wilds of Oklahoma, where water moccasins and copperheads abounded. Chimpanzees are naturally frightened of snakes. One day, a resident chimp cried out, signaling that snakes were present. All of the animals moved rapidly away from that end of the island, except for Bruno. Washoe was halfway to safety when she tamed and saw Bruno sitting on the snake-infested side of the island, blissfully unaware of impending danger. Washoe stood up and emphatically signed "COME HUG COME HUG" to Bruno, but the youngster remained sitting where he was, since he hadn't yet learned ASL. Amazingly, Washoe scurried back to the danger zone, took Bruno by his hand and led him to the safe end of the island.

Washoe also displayed her nurturing mentality during even more perilous rescue missions while at the Institute. The island was surrounded by a moat with steep and slippery red clay sides. After a drowning occurred, a two-strand, 3-foot-high electric fence was built around the edge of the island. The metal poles holding the wire were placed in the grassy ledge about six inches from the water. Penny, a new chimpanzee, arrived on the island one morning and, later that day, I heard her screaming at the top of her lungs, likely as a result of being teased by the boys. Penny must have panicked, because the next sound I heard was a splash. She had taken a running jump over the fence and into the moat--a frightening situation, since chimpanzees can't swim. I was prepared to go in after her but Washoe beat me to it. She jumped over the electric fence, landing precariously on the short, grassy ledge at the edge of the moat, then slipped into the water while holding onto the bottom of the electric fence post. She grabbed one of Penny's arms and pulled her to safety. I ran for a boat and dragged both of them into it, rowing them back to the island's landing. To this day, I am astounded by the dangerous rescue that I witnessed. Washoe had risked her own life to save another chimpanzee, one she had known for only a few hours.

Reading Feelings

Perhaps the most striking examples of the chimpanzees' sense of sympathy and empathy involves their emotional reactions to seeing humans in pain. In 1980, Washoe and I moved to Central Washington University--our current home--along with Loulis, her adopted son, and other surrogate siblings, Moja, Dar and Tatu, from the Gardners' second project. While acting as a parent volunteer on a high school ski trip one weekend, I fell and broke my arm. My physician had not put my arm in a cast, so any movement was quite painful until the bones knitted. The following Monday I walked into our laboratory with my arm in a sling. All of the chimpanzees must have seen the pain I was trying to hide written plainly on my face, because instead of the raucous pant-hoot greeting they typically let loose upon seeing me, they all sat very still and watched me intently. Washoe signed "THERE" and pointed to my arm, so I approached and knelt down by the wire mesh partition surrounding the chimps' large living space. She gently put her fingers through the wire and groomed my arm gently, making a soft clicking noise with her tongue. Tatu, in turn, signed "HURT" and gently touched me as well. Even 10-year-old Loulis understood enough not to ask me for his usual "CHASE" game until several weeks later, when I was on the mend.

Washoe has astutely reacted to the feelings of others as well. One of our longtime volunteers, Kat Beach, became pregnant in the summer of 1982, and Washoe was fascinated with her swelling belly, often asking her about her "BABY". (Washoe understood what babies were and where they came from, since she has been pregnant twice and lost both offspring--one to a congenital heart defect, one to a respiratory illness. She showed signs of depression each time. She also seems to know what the parent-child relationship involves. My wife Debbi and I thought we had Washoe fooled about our relationship until one day we asked her who she thought our 5-year-old daughter Hillary was. Washoe signed "ROGER DEBBI BABY", leaving no doubt about Hillary's identity and her relationship to us.)

Unfortunately, Kat eventually miscarried, and couldn't visit the chimpanzees for several weeks. One facet of Washoe's personality is that she has extremely high expectations of her friends. People who should be there for her and aren't are often later given the cold shoulder her way of informing them that she's miffed at them. Washoe greeted Kat in just this way when she finally returned to work with the chimps. Kat made her apologies to Washoe, then decided to tell her the truth, signing "MY BABY DIED." Washoe stared at her, then looked down. She finally peered into Kat's eyes again and carefully signed "CRY," touching her cheek and drawing her finger down the path a tear would make on a human. (Chimpanzees don't shed tears.) Kat later remarked that that one sign told her more about Washoe and her mental capabilities than all her longer, more grammatically perfect sentences. When Kat prepared to leave that day, Washoe did not want her to go without some emotional support. She signed "PLEASE PERSON HUG."

Hair-Brained Schemes

Chimps' softer, sweeter emotions aren't the only evidence of their intellectual capacity. Their minds are also, like ours, capable of deception, strategy and manipulation.

Washoe adopted Loulis when he was 10 months old after having lost two of her own babies. She doted on him. So Loulis would often abuse his special stares and Washoe's loving nature to get his way--and to get other chimpanzees in trouble. All he had to do was scream, and Washoe would come running. She would sign "HUG" to him and then, after comforting him, she would discipline the perpetrator. This turned Loulis into a bit of a spoiled brat. We observed that sometimes another chimpanzee would not even touch him and he would scream and point at an innocent bystander, just to get attention.

Dar was the one who finally figured out how to use Loulis' game to his own advantage. Dar went over and pinched Loulis hard for no reason that we could see. This started a screaming fight between the two. When Washoe rushed in from another room Dar immediately threw himself on his back and started screaming and signing "HUG HUG HUG", alternating it with a look toward Loulis. When Washoe started swaggering in Loulis' direction to exact punishment, he stood for a moment as if he couldn't believe his eyes, then retreated rapidly from the room. The tables had been turned. Washoe then comforted a smug Dar, grooming him until he calmed down.

Chimps are People, Too

Before I started on Project Washoe three decades ago, I believed what I had been taught by society: that humans were intellectually and emotionally superior to all other species. We were like the pigs on George Orwell's Animal Farm, where all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

But as my observations of Washoe in natural social situations show, we're not as unique as we believe. Ironically, chimpanzees' remarkable similarity to humans has served not to protect them, but has actually worked against their welfare. The biomedical community justifies experimenting on chimps, ravaging them with the AIDS virus, organ transplantation, hepatitis and brain injury, by claiming that chimps' physiology and biology is so similar to humans that the findings they yield are likely to apply to us as well. What they ignore is that creatures who are so physiologically similar to us may also be psychologically and mentally similar to us. They ignore the ethical and moral implications of experimenting on creatures that, by the experimenters' own admission, are so close to us. They can't have it both ways.

Changing this mindset was one of the most difficult things that I personally have ever done. Working closely with chimps forced me to recognize that I was a part of a research project whose prime subject was a helpless baby taken from her mother and her African homeland. It was a project that condemned a young girl to a life in which she would always be out of place and, in effect, in prison. While Washoe's circumstances are better now, with caretakers who love and respect her rather than owners who do not appreciate her, she can never go home again. She was never taught the skills she would need to survive in her native Africa, and yet she does not entirely belong here in the human world, either. Given my current knowledge of free-living chimpanzee culture and emotional life, I would never support or be a part of a project like Project Washoe again. I have to accept that Washoe is a person by any reasonable definition, and that the community of chimpanzees from which she was stolen are a people. I regret that I cannot ever return her to her home.

So I act. In 1993, I established the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, a safe research environment based on mutual respect between humans and chimpanzees. We do not enter the chimps' home or play areas, and any interaction with us is up to them. Their interests and well-being are our first priority. Enrichment of both humans and chimps is a full-time effort at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, and it goes on all day. But Washoe, Loulis, Tatu, Moja and Dar take part in research only if they wish; they are not bribed with food, forced with threats or socially harangued into submission.

As a scientist, I act on behalf of the chimpanzees. I speak out in favor of better living conditions, sanctuaries and protecting preserves against biomedical research. I speak out against logging, forest destruction, using apes in entertainment and captive breeding. If you met them, you would, too.

READ MORE ABOUT IT

Next of Kin, Roger Fouts, Ph.D. (Bard, 1997)

Teaching Sign Language to Chimpanzees, R.A. Gardner B.T. Gardner and T.E. Van Cantfort (SUNY Press, 1989)

Adapted by Ph.D.

Roger Fours, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Central Washington University and co-director with his wife, Deborah Fouts, of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute.

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?