In 1967 Roger Fouts, then a grad student at the University of Nevada at Reno, began working with psychologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner on a project to teach an infant chimpanzee to talk. The chimp, Washoe, had been captured in Africa for air force medical experiments. The Gardners had brought her home from a lab in New Mexico and were raising her almost like a human child. Washoe played with dolls, ate in a high chair, and was learning to “talk” using American Sign Language.

Fouts started out teaching ASL to Washoe using a rigid system of rewards, but he soon found she learned much faster by simply watching him and the Gardners and imitating their signs, much as a human child learns to talk by imitating its parents’ speech. In his new book, Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Taught Me About Who We Are, Fouts offers examples of how Washoe gradually built a vocabulary of more than 350 words and learned to assemble them into new combinations. “She once pestered me to let her try a cigarette I was smoking: GIVE ME SMOKE, SMOKE WASHOE, HURRY GIVE SMOKE. Finally I signed ASK POLITELY. She responded PLEASE GIVE ME THAT HOT SMOKE.”

In 1970 Fouts brought Washoe to Norman, Oklahoma, to continue experiments at the Institute for Primate Studies. There Washoe became the matriarch of a surrogate chimp family, teaching ASL to her adopted son Loulis. Other chimps took to signing abstract concepts like “more” and “less” and spontaneously used their limited vocabularies to name new objects, referring to a watermelon as “drink fruit,” a radish as “cry hurt food,” a cucumber as “green banana,” and Alka-Seltzer as “listen drink.”

News of the chimps’ proficiency in ASL was received with skepticism in some quarters, particularly by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who had theorized that humans master the complex rules of language syntax in early childhood by means of a “universal grammar” hardwired into the left hemisphere of the brain. Chomsky insisted that only humans possessed this faculty and that the chimps’ use of ASL was merely reward-motivated imitation. But his claim was difficult to reconcile with the accomplishments of Washoe and her family–or with Darwinian theory, which couldn’t account for the evolution of a such a faculty in the mere six million years since chimps and humans had parted ways on the evolutionary path. Fouts charged that Chomsky and his followers were prisoners of the belief that a fundamental difference separates humans from other animals, an idea that has predominated in the West since Plato.

Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace then conducted a study in which a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky was taught ASL in daily sessions of strict training in a windowless eight-by-eight-foot cell. The results were unimpressive, and Terrace concluded that Nim understood signs only as triggers to get rewards. Fouts countered that Terrace’s tightly controlled experiment deprived Nim of precisely the supportive social environment needed to learn language. Using remote cameras, Fouts later recorded hundreds of hours of videotape in which his chimps could be seen signing to each other when humans were absent. Biologists and anthropologists responded with enthusiasm, but many linguists, including Chomsky, remained unconvinced–even after Nim’s signing improved dramatically once he was allowed more normal social interaction. “Most of the critics don’t bother to look at the data,” Fouts says today. “Chomsky can’t afford to say, ‘My gosh, isn’t it wonderful I found out that for the past 35 years I’ve been barking up the wrong tree?'”

By 1974 Fouts found this controversy overshadowed by a more pressing problem. An adult chimp is many times stronger than a human in peak physical condition, and thus is usually considered unsuitable for behavioral studies. As the juveniles in his care grew into willful, excitable adults with big appetites, Fouts found it more and more difficult to get funding for their feeding and care. When his grant money ran out in 1981, Fouts was reduced to digging through leftover produce in alleys behind supermarkets.

He considered the chimps’ options. While Fouts regarded them as intelligent individuals, the law considered the chimps mere property, and the institutions that owned them wanted to be rid of them. Returning the home-reared chimps to the African rain forest was as unrealistic as leaving a human child alone in the wilderness. Zoos were also out because they wanted “natural” apes, not chimps that conversed in ASL, ate pizza, and paged through magazines. The only interested takers were biomedical laboratories seeking test subjects.

Fouts soon found himself embroiled in a series of legal and fund-raising battles to keep Washoe and her family free from harm. He was only partly successful. In 1977 one chimp, Lucy, was sent to a chimpanzee orphanage in the Gambia, where she was killed by poachers 11 years later. In 1982 two of Fouts’s other charges, Booee and Bruno, were sent to New York University, where they were locked in tiny steel cages and injected with hepatitis C virus for vaccine trials. Fouts reluctantly visited the lab in 1995, accompanied by Hugh Downs and a camera crew from ABC’s 20/20. Booee, who hadn’t seen Fouts in 13 years, immediately recognized him and excitedly signed through the bars of his cage, “Give me food Roger.”

After several years of fund-raising efforts, Fouts won ownership of Washoe, Loulis, and three other chimps and was able to build the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in Ellensburg, Washington. The chimps now live in a three-story-high wire-mesh enclosure equipped with caves, terraces, poles for climbing, and fire hoses for swinging. Fouts says they’re happy there but admits it’s an inadequate solution. He cites a recent visit to Jane Goodall’s Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania, where he saw wild chimpanzees ranging six miles a day through the rain forest and swinging through trees 80 feet above ground. “To enclose them in a 5,000-square-foot area and only allow them to go up 32 feet–that’s still a prison,” he says.

Fouts now devotes much of his time to his efforts to halt biomedical testing on chimps in the United States and destruction of their natural habitat in Africa. He believes research on chimpanzees should be restricted by the same ethics one would apply to human subjects. “We’ve had this human arrogance that they were here for our pleasure, but they’re not,” he says. “They should be recognized as persons.”

Fouts will show videos of his work with the chimps at a free lecture and book signing Wednesday at 6 PM in the video theater of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State. Call 312-747-4050 for details.

–Renaldo Migaldi

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roger Fouts photo by Aaron Fineman; Fouts with Washoe photo.