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CWU’s Communicative Chimpanzees

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Plants & Animals

Our awareness of intelligence in animals has significantly increased over the last several decades as data from researchers in labs and in the field reported on the cognitive abilities of primates, dolphins, crows, octopuses, and other species. Perhaps the most remarkable study during these years has taken place here in the state of Washington where scientists and a group of our closest animal relatives have been communicating with each other for more than thirty years.

The story began when Washoe, a female chimpanzee born in West Africa in 1965, came into the care of Allen and Beatrix Gardner at the University of Nevada, Reno. Washoe learned many gestures in American Sign Language (ASL) from the Gardners while living a life very similar to that of a human child. The lifestyle and learning continued with Roger and Deborah Fouts at the University of Oklahoma.

Washoe not only used the ASL words she learned, but absorbed words she saw signed between other people. She used her growing sign language vocabulary in many contexts that demonstrated original thinking behind her communication.  (She signed “water” and “bird” upon seeing her first swan, for instance.) Other ASL interactions revealed her emotions and empathy. The researchers and caretakers gave her the respect they would give any intelligent human youth but never ignored that she was a chimpanzee. The experience was a stunning look into the life and mind of a primate.

Washoe arrived in Ellensburg, Washington in 1980, and was a significant part of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) at Central Washington University. Not only was she the first non-human ever to learn ASL and communicate directly with humans, but she taught some ASL words to other chimpanzees at the Institute — all of whom continued the learning and communication pioneered by Washoe.

She passed away four years ago today. She was 42. In memory of Washoe, we wanted to draw attention to the CHCI in Ellensburg with this article, and list her family — chimpanzees who have been (and remain) part of the remarkable inter-species understanding and communication project that began nearly 45 years ago. For more information visit the websites of both the the CHCI and the Friends of Washoe. Next of Kin, a book by Roger Fouts, is available from the Institute’s gift shop.


Chimpanzee Sex Birthdate Age How to sign
the chimpanzee’s name
Washoe female Sept, 1965 died Oct 30, 2007 (age 42) “W” flicked on ear.
Moja female Nov 18, 1972 died Jun 6, 2002 (age 29) “M” drawn across opposite palm.
Tatu female Dec 30, 1975 living,
35 years old
“T” tapped on opposite shoulder.
Dar male Aug 2, 1976 living,
35 years old
“D” flicked on ear.
Loulis male May 10, 1978 living,
33 years old
“L” placed on the end of nose, without movement. (Washoe gave him this sign.)

NOTE: Washoe had two children. One died shortly after birth.  Another — Sequoyah — passed away at age two months in 1979.

PHOTO of Washoe is the property of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute and is used here with permission.


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