Washoe, making the ASL sign for shoe (two fists tapped together)
The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute
Ellensburg, Washington
November, 1998

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

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No, unfortunately I’ve forgotten all but a couple signs. Languages vanish so quickly when you don’t use them often enough. :-/ That’s great that you can sign with your student, though!

A part of me wanted to fly out there this week for the memorial service, just because I thought it would be a fascinating thing to witness. Besides, I’m always looking for a good reason to go back to Washington. I loved Seattle!

It is sad that people sympathize more with animals that are similar enough to us that they are able to learn a human language. I wish there could be more effort for us to learn other species’ communications instead. But I do applaud the small number of chimps/gorillas/bonobos/orangs that have become the voice of the animal kingdom. It’s humbling really.

I think most people who have ever loved a dog or cat know that they are just as capable of joy, pain, and fear as we are. I don’t know why people don’t think that cows, pigs, or chickens are somehow different.

That’s so cool that your mother did a story on them, and that you lived in Ellensburg. Washoe did love to check out the things people were wearing. Most of the chimps weren’t too interested in all the unfamiliar faces that passed by each week, but Washoe took them as opportunities to see clothes, shoes, and jewelry. 😉

I highly recommend that you go to a Chimposium to see Dar, Loulis, and Tatu. They are fascinating! Tatu loves black–black clothes or photos of things that are black–and she’ll even use the sign BLACK to mean “good” or “cool.” Loulis is the youngest, and he still acts like a kid even though he’s fully grown. You’ll have so much fun when you get a chance to see them in action.

i’m sad to hear she died… also, i’m impressed that you went to work with her directly. that’s very cool. do you still sign now? i use some sign with my one of my students who is hearing impaired.

Aw, that’s so sad that she died. 🙁

How cool – I had no idea, either that you were a vegetarian or that you came out here to work there. NPR did a story on Washoe and her family this morning – I live in Seattle, so it’s vaguely close to CWU.

you get more amazing every day.

As long as beasts are dumb, we feel free to assume that they feel no pain and have no knowledge of things such as love, loyalty, fear, and devotion.

My mother Did an article on Washoe nearly 20 years ago. She was a photojournalist for the Ellensburg Washington Newspaper where we lived, and was sent to a sign-language class to prepare for the encounter. Washoe Loved my mothers watch, and told her it was beautiful over and over. Because of her interaction with Washoe, I learned sign language at six, convinced I would work with her some day.

I’m quite quite sad to hear of Washoe’s passing.

The language studies with chimps and other primates has ALWAYS fascinated me. How fantastic that you actually had the opportunity to speak with her and watch that knowledge in action.

I’m sorry to hear that such an interesting being has passed on.

I read about that. 🙁

Hey Charlotte, I wanted to let you know (in case you hadn’t heard) that United Airlines will be running direct/non-stop flights to Heathrow I starting March 30th…given your ties (and of course Mike’s ties) to the area I thought you might like to know. It should give British Airways a run for their money.

Here’s the article from The Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_7345275

I was so sad to hear of her death. I live in Spokane, WA, very near CWU where her and her family live. I was planning on attending their Chimposiums, which I will still do, but I am disappointed that I didn’t get there sooner to see Washoe. What a blessing she was.

Charlotte Geary

CHARLOTTE GEARY

I photograph fascinating people, and I teach other people how to do it, too.

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