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The Very Last Chimposium

The Very Last Chimposium

It has always been a dream of mine to have a “meaningful exchange” with an intelligent being of another species, and the being I usually have in mind is a chimpanzee. This past weekend, my boyfriend and I got awfully close to fulfilling my dream.

On Saturday, Paul and I drove two hours southeast of Seattle to the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) in Ellensburg, Washington. During our “chimposium” we heard a lecture, spoke with some of the student researchers, and observed two of the famous “signing chimps”: Loulis and Tatu. Tatu was raised by humans and taught American Sign Language as if she were a deaf child, but Loulis learned ASL from his adoptive chimpanzee mother, Washoe, making him the first non-human to learn a human language from another non-human.

I knew all about these chimps, and the Institute, because I had recently read Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees, a memoir by Roger Fouts, the founder of CHCI. In the seventies and eighties, Fouts was one of the key players involved with teaching and caring for Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn ASL. He later dedicated himself to improving living conditions not only for Washoe and her family, but for chimpanzees everywhere, both captive and in the wild.

Next of Kin describes Fouts ‘s moral dilemmas as he began to realize that the chimpanzees in his studies were intelligent and emotional beings that deserved better lives than they were being given. He just barely managed to keep Washoe and her family from being sold to a biomedical research lab, and he  was eventually able to get them out of a primate research center where the chimps were controlled with electric cattle prods, razor-lined cages, and pellet guns. With his increasing activism, he made himself an outcast of the scientific community, many of whom still saw chimpanzees as “hairy test tubes” (50) and did not believe that they truly had the ability to communicate using human language.

At the end of the book, Fouts tells the story of how he was finally able to get funding and support to create CHCI on the campus of Central Washington University. He and his wife moved to Ellensburg with Washoe and four other chimpanzees. The chimps had to live on the third floor on the psychology building for three years while the facility was built, but finally they moved into their new home – a spacious, building with both indoor and outdoor areas for the chimps. It was the first time Loulis had ever stepped foot outside.

Around this time, Fouts also came up with the idea of “chimposiums”: a way to educate the public about chimpanzees as well as earn extra money for the institute and his nonprofit organization, Friends of Washoe. The book ends happily, describing a scene in June 1996, when Fouts, his wife, and the other institute employees celebrated Washoe’s thirtieth birthday by giving her twelve long-stemmed roses. She signed SMELL GOOD as she sniffed them.“Then, cradling them carefully, she carried them up to a high cargo net, where she ate them with great delicacy, petal by petal, signing GOOD FOOD after every few bites” (383).

What a happy ending, right?

In preparation for the chimposium, I decided to read more chimp books. I checked out Maurice Temerlin’s out-of-print memoir from 1975, Lucy: Growing Up Human – A Chimpanzee Daughter in a Psychotherapist’s Family. The book was hard to get through due to how annoying I found Maury Temerlin. Temerlin claimed that he and his wife, Jane, adopted Lucy in the name of science – to see how human-like a chimp could become if she was raised by two loving human parents. But if Temerlin was trying to conduct scientific research, he went about it in a bizarre way. Throughout the book he came across as self-involved, out of touch with reality, and overly obsessed with mothers, excrement, and sex. He had poor judgment in many of his dealings with his “chimpanzee daughter” (he let her get drunk off gin and watch as he and Jane had sex, for example), and at many times he seemed downright insane.

I marked passages in which I though Temerlin sounded especially obnoxious, and then read them out loud to Paul.

“It’s interesting, the way the book ends,” I said as we got into the car on Saturday morning, getting ready to drive to Ellensburg.

“How does it end?” he asked.

I told him that Temerlin wrote the memoir while Lucy was still living at his house. In the last chapter, he and Jane had decided that Lucy didn’t need them anymore. They had (according to Termerlin) successfully raised her, and now they were ready for a chimp-free life.  They wanted their freedom back.

The books ends with Termlin wondering where they could send her. Not a zoo or a chimpanzee colony – she had never met another chimpanzee and didn’t know how to interact with them. And though he doesn’t mention it, they certainly couldn’t release her into the wild. She was a spoiled girl who enjoyed her evening gin and tonic. She liked flipping through magazines and wearing dresses and chatting in ASL with her tutor, Roger Fouts. She wouldn’t know how to survive in the jungle. “I like books to have happy endings,” Temerlin said on the last page. “If they do not have happy endings they should have tragic endings. I hate books which have no ending – like this one.”

Except, in my mind, his book does have an ending, and it’s a tragic one. “What they did to Lucy was cruel,” Paul said as we drove over the Cascade mountains. “They turned her into something not quite human and not quite chimpanzee. They made it so that she was stranded between worlds with no place to go.”

The ending of Lucy: Growing Up Human, is that, in the end, she became human, but not human enough.

On the way to CHCI, Paul and I re-listened to the Radiolab episode on Lucy, which continues the Lucy story from where Temerlin’s memoir left off. The Temerlin’s eventually decided to send Lucy to a chimpanzee colony in Gambia. They also sent their assistant, Janis, who thought she would be there for three weeks, helping Lucy adjust.  Instead, Janis lived with Lucy in the jungle for years, trying to teach her how to find food, make a sleeping nest, and integrate herself with the other chimps. At first Lucy refused to forage, and she nearly died of starvation, but finally she learned to live in the wild, and Janis was able to leave her alone. A few years later, Lucy was dead – shot by poachers. It is believed that she approached them, maybe even tried to communicate with them. After all, she wasn’t afraid of humans.  She thought she was one.


Eva at CHCI in Ellensburg, WA

Eva at CHCI in Ellensburg, WA

Paul and I thoroughly enjoyed our chimposium. I was nearly beside myself when Loulis looked at us through the glass, and when Tatu signed BLACK, her favorite color, I had to hold my hand over my mouth to hide my smile.  (Chimpanzees find human’s toothy grins threatening.)  Plus, it was exciting just to be there at CHCI – the place I’d read so much about.

Except it was also sad. Because we were attending the very last chimposium.

Since Loulis and Tatu are the only chimps left at the institute (the others have died in recent years of old age), Friends of Washoe was hoping to integrate some more chimps into the facility. Chimpanzees are highly social and enjoy being in larger groups. Since the recent end of biomedical testing on chimpanzees, there are many chimps that are no longer needed at labs and need places to go. These chimps are currently being “warehoused,” living their lives in tiny, solitary cages, and though CHCI doesn’t have room for all of them, it could certainly has room for some.

But, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Central Washington University wouldn’t agree to bringing in more chimps, and so Friends of Washoe had to make the difficult decision to send Loulis and Tatu to the Fauna Foundation, a sanctuary in Quebec, Canada, where they can live in a bigger social group.

“So what’s going to happen to this facility?” I asked during the chimposium.

“What’s going to happen to the primate studies program?” Paul asked.

“Good question,” Larkin said emphatically. Larkin was the pony-tailed primate-studies major who had been conducting the lecture on chimpanzees. She blinked her eyes rapidly, and her cheeks flushed. She looked like she was on the verge of tears. She swung her head, and her pony tail swished violently. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just don’t know.”

For the entire drive home, Paul and I talked about our experience. Paul admitted that it wasn’t quite what he’d imagined. “I guess I’d been hoping that we would be able to really talk to them,” he said. (Talk to the chimps, he meant, but it seemed the chimps were only interested in communicating with the people they already knew.)

“Yeah, I said. “But still, it was really cool to see them, and to see the institute itself. I mean, this was the culmination of Roger Fouts’s dream.”

“Yeah,” Paul said. “This is where the book ends.”

Except it’s not where the story ends. Soon, Tatu and Loulis will be heavily sedated and driven to Canada. They will join the chimpanzee community at the Fauna Foundation.  These chimps do not speak sign language and will likely be aggressive to outsiders, so the introduction will be an extremely slow process.  Tatu and Loulis  will live on another twenty-five or more years at the sanctuary. They are entering yet another chapter in their lives.

The stories of the chimps are fascinating to me, and this latest experience gives me something interesting to consider as a writer… There is never any ending – happy, tragic or otherwise. There is only where you choose to stop telling the story.



Friends of Washoe

Ape Behavior

Lucy:  Radiolab episode



About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

3 responses »

  1. You might find ‘The Monkey Wars’ interesting – its a discussion from all points of view of testing on primates, written by a journalist interviewing everyone from animal rights activists to neurobiologists, and it mentions Lucy and Washoe I believe. Might be interesting if you haven’t already read it 🙂

  2. Pingback: Even a Monkey Knows What It Means to be Free | From SOVEREIGN to SERF - Roger Sayles (SERFS-UP.NET)

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