Washoe, making the ASL sign for shoe (two fists tapped together)
The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute
Washoe was the first non-human to learn a human language, and she has lived for the last 40 years with Roger and Debbi Fouts and the rest of her chimpanzee family. They communicated via American Sign Language. The sign language study began as an effort to evaluate the intelligence of primates. Years of communicating via this shared language enabled the researchers to learn so much about the chimps’ thoughts and emotions that the Fouts concluded a lesson that has always resonated with me: Compassion is the trait that should be valued above all others, including intelligence.
Years ago, I read Roger Fouts’ book, Next of Kin, about his work with these chimps. This book changed my outlook on the world so substantially that I decided I needed to meet Fouts and Washoe. I studied sign language for six months, and then went to Washington to do a volunteer project with them. That experience was one of the most significant moments in my self-development. Shortly afterward, I decided to become a vegetarian.
Today I am so sad to learn that Washoe has died. She died of natural causes, and I know she was well-loved to the end. You can read the story here: http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/10/31/signing.chimp.dies.ap/index.html