First Chimp to Sign Dies

Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane, Washington
Associated Press
November 1, 2007

A female chimpanzee believed to be the first nonhuman to acquire human language has died of natural causes at the Washington State research institute where she was kept.

Washoe, who first learned a bit of American Sign Language during a research project in Nevada, had been living on Central Washington University's Ellensburg campus since 1980. She had a vocabulary of about 250 words.

She died Tuesday night, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, co-founders of The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute (CHCI) on the campus.

Washoe was born in Africa in about 1965.

She was taken to the veterinary hospital at Washington State University on Wednesday for a necropsy.

Her memorial will be on November 12.

The Fouts went to Central Washington from Oklahoma in 1980 to create a home for Washoe and other chimps.

"The entire CWU community and the Ellensburg community are feeling the loss of our friend, Washoe, one of our daughters," said CWU President Jerilyn S. McIntyre.

Washoe also taught sign language to three younger chimps who remain at the institute, university spokesperson Becky Watson said. They are Tatu, 31; Loulis, 29; and Dar, 31.

Washoe was named for Washoe County, Nevada, where she lived with Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno, from 1966 to 1970.

In Roger Fouts' 1998 book Next of Kin, famed primate researcher Jane Goodall is quoted on the importance of the work with Washoe.

"Roger, through his ongoing conversations with Washoe and her extended family, has opened a window into the cognitive workings of a chimpanzee's mind that adds new dimension to our understanding," Goodall is quoted as saying.

In 1967 the Gardners established Project Washoe to teach the chimp ASL. Previous attempts to teach chimpanzees to imitate vocal languages had failed.

Roger Fouts was a graduate student of the Gardners.

For Washoe to be considered "reliable" on a sign, it had to be seen by three different observers in three separate instances. Then it had to be seen 15 days in a row to be added to her sign list.

But there was controversy over whether the chimp was really using ASL. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has contended the notion that Washoe was the first nonhuman to acquire a human language was without scientific support.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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