'My Best Friend is a Chimp'
Provides information on studies about the genetic makeup of
chimpanzees. How Washoe, a chimpanzee, learned the American Sign
Language; Information on the theory of the mind; Emotional traits of
chimpanzees; Chimpanzees' sense of sympathy and empathy.
By Roger Fouts published July 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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.