Whatever Happened to Washoe?

The first part of this series, entitled "The Journey West," told of how our adventure began. With two of my three children taller than I am, I can now proudly call myself a veteran homeschooler. Having accomplished the younger years with an intact love of learning, we now have a situation where the kids can drive their own education at least some of the time. This opportunity came because my daughter Emily had an interest and kept digging for information. The Journey West talked about how we were able to swing this transcontinental trip on a shoestring budget. Whatever Happened to Washoe will tell of the Chimposium-our destination.

Our next stop was a small college town, Ellensburg. Here, on the grounds of Central Washington University is the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) (509) 963-2244. It was here, at CHCI, that Emily and I met Washoe and her adopted family. Some of us can remember thirty-five years back when we started sending spaceships into the sky. Before humans went into orbit, chimpanzees were sent (with genes that are 98.4% identical, chimpanzees are our closest living relatives) to see if they could survive in outer space. So, the United States Air Force started importing chimpanzees from Africa to use in space research. That's how Washoe came to the USA. Then, the Air Force didn't need them any more, and since chimpanzees can live in captivity for a lifespan close to ours, humane living conditions became difficult to find. Washoe was "cross-fostered," meaning she was raised in the home of humans as if she were a human child. Humans were only allowed to use American Sign Language (ASL) around Washoe and she became the first non-human to learn ASL. Washoe grew up and became dangerous. Not because she was violent, but because of her sheer strength. She could accidentally crush somebody with a hug, so Washoe couldn't live at home anymore.

Washoe was lucky. She had two human families (researchers Gardner & Fouts) that cared for her and she moved with the Foutses as different universities hosted their communication research. Although in a cage, her living conditions were significantly better than most of the chimpanzees in captivity. About 1,700 of the two thousand in the U.S. are being used as bio-medical research subjects, and the majority of the rest live in our zoos. Along with four other chimps, Washoe has largely been studied because of her ASL skills. With over 25 years of studying communication, the new research focus at CHCI/CWU is on aggression & conflict resolution within Washoe's family. And her family gets to live in a state-of-the-art facility only seven years old.

This was all new stuff for me. Emily had read the books, knew the lingo, and couldn't wait to spend time with the chimpanzee family. I had trusted my daughter's prediction that this would be a quality learning experience and that is just what it was.

The Chimposium uses all fees charged for the direct care of the chimps. Dwindling sources of funding have forced the researchers to have some kind of income-hence the Chimposium. To attend both the beginner's session and the advanced session cost about $100 for each person. During the mandatory one-hour beginner's training, we received an overview of how to behave while in the chimps' living room. The class size was probably sixty-all different ages and understanding. When the group entered the living room, the chimps were clearly agitated and staff worked hard to calm and reassure the chimps that we were friends. Understand that due to the danger, no humans have physical contact with the chimps anymore. When observing the chimpanzees, we were in their living room. This has a floor-to-ceiling glass wall with a sound system that allowed us to hear as well as to view.

All efforts had been made to accommodate the needs of the chimps. The ceiling is very high to allow for climbing, hammocks are strung high and low for relaxing, and efforts to provide a stimulating environment are obvious. The chimps have access to a large outdoor enclosure, and the observation area (the living room) offers a full view of the entire set-up. One chimp was in the corner, leafing through a magazine. Another chimp has a liking for shoes and chose the wildest shoes in the audience and asked for a close up look at them. A third chimp lazily swung in high netting and yet another ran outside. But the chimps didn't particularly seem to appreciate our presence.

The advanced session was five hours of intensive focus. The group was limited to fifteen people, with a minimum age of thirteen. Our instruction stressed how to walk, to smile without the top teeth showing (showing the top teeth is a sign of aggression), to sign simple words, and more-all in order to better relate to the chimps. This segment covered the history of the research and sign language development in chimpanzees, reviewed aspects of chimpanzee behavior, went over the life history of each of the five chimps and pointed out their individual personalities-strengths as well as weaknesses. We practiced ASL, discussed research reliability, learned of current research undertakings at the institute, and studied methods of data collection. Also covered was the impact of biomedical research on chimpanzees and how to help chimps-an endangered species-worldwide. It saddened me to learn there are less than 200,000 of these delightful creatures, our closest cousins, left in the entire world.

Via closed circuit TV, we "had dinner" with the chimps-who were excited about having a feast with company. (Yes, the chimps sign to each other when humans are out of the room.) By then it seemed the chimps liked us. I felt like I got to know them on a personal level and could recognize and name each of them by the end of the day. I don't think I will ever forget Washoe, Moja, Tatu, Dar, and Loulis. It was fantastic.


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Mary Wilson...
Email: mary@trailz.org

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