Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Washoe, RIP

by Brian Haycock

Humans and chimpanzees all over the world are in mourning. The great Washoe, the legendary chimpanzee genius, has gone on to the big banana farm in the sky at the age of 42.
Although Washoe was probably the most intelligent chimpanzee to be captured by humans, she was never able to match the popularity of J. Fred Muggs, who was once host of the Today Show. Nor did she amass the wealth of Cosmo, the chimpanzee artist who once sold three paintings for $26,000 in an auction. Still, Washoe had much to be proud of.
Her greatest accomplishment was mastering 250 words of American Sign Language and helping teach them to a small group of younger chimpanzees. To put this accomplishment in perspective, the average human knows precisely zero words of American Sign Language. And a lot of them can't really make coherent sentences in their own languages.
Washoe's human companions are grieving in the way humans do. They're thinking up poignant tributes in English, a language Washoe never mastered. A scientist with the institute that studied Washoe called her "an emissary bringing us a message of respect for nature." Another human mourner wrote on the Friends of Washoe website, "Washoe taught me to love, to trust and to nurture..." A third posted a little story about Washoe arriving at the gates of heaven. It quoted St. Peter saying, "In heaven we all speak chimpanzee."
The chimps are pretty upset, too. Washoe's companions are said to be morose and really cranky. When asked his feelings about the great one's passing, one member of Washoe's adopted family signed, "Red, red, banana, chair, red, banana." Experts are debating the meaning of this.
It could be that language skills among the remaining chimps at the institute are already deteriorating.
With Washoe unable to speak for herself, controversy over her actual abilities is likely to continue. Human scientists disagree over whether Washoe actually used ASL to communicate or merely made signs more or less at random in hopes that someone would feed her. While she was alive, Washoe had a sign for people who refused to believe she was actually using language. Critics, however, claimed that she learned the sign when she rode in Seattle traffic with her handlers and only used it in hopes that someone would feed her.
Among her critics was Noam Chomsky, who claims that chimpanzees lack the physical brain structures to develop language skills. He also criticized Washoe as a traitor to her species who helped her human oppressors learn to control her fellow chimpanzees as part of a bid to seize the mineral wealth of central Africa.
His critics claim that Chomsky only says things like that in hopes that someone will feed him.
In a press release, the animal rights group PETA announced that it would issue a statement about Washoe eventually. They are currently too busy trying to get supermodels to pose naked to protest the fur industry.
The cause of Washoe's death is listed as the flu. She is now set to undergo a necropsy, which means that she will be dissected into very small pieces. A memorial is planned, but it will be held without Washoe's remains, which will be in a biowaste landfill by then. It's hard being an emissary for nature.
In lieu of flowers, well-wishers are invited to send bunches of bananas to the Friends of Washoe, a non-profit set up to help her and the other chimps at the Institute.
Rest in peace, Washoe.

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