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Originally published November 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 1, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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"Signing" chimp Washoe broke language barrier

A world-famous chimpanzee believed to be the first animal to learn a human language died at Central Washington University in Ellensburg...

Seattle Times higher education reporter

A world-famous chimpanzee believed to be the first animal to learn a human language died at Central Washington University in Ellensburg Tuesday night.

Washoe, who was 42 years old, could use about 250 distinctive American Sign Language signs, said Deborah Fouts, director of the university's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, where Washoe lived.

Fouts said Washoe was continuing to communicate on the day of her death.

"She was not feeling well. I came up to her to give her a drink," Fouts said. "She lifted her head and greeted me with a pant-hoot [a soft sound that chimpanzees make]. She's always been a polite, cheerful person."

Washoe was born in 1965 in West Africa, where she was captured by the Air Force and brought to the United States, initially for research use in the space program. In 1966, she left that program and began living in Washoe County, Nev., with two scientists, Allen and Beatrix Gardner. The Gardners led a project at the University of Nevada, Reno to teach Washoe ASL. Previous efforts to teach chimpanzees spoken languages had failed, but the Gardners believed there was a better chance using signs.

Washoe learned ASL starting that year. Her fame quickly spread.

Deborah Fouts and her husband, Roger, became involved in the project in 1967. The Foutses moved Washoe to Oklahoma and added other chimpanzees to their research. In 1980, the Foutses and chimps moved to Ellensburg at CWU's invitation.

"We did it for the chimpanzees, to have the safety of a sanctuary and to get away from everything," Deborah Fouts said.

Washoe was able to teach another chimpanzee, Loulis, sign language without any human intervention, marking the first animal-to-animal transfer of a human language, according to Fouts. She said the chimpanzees have been able to converse among themselves about feeling happy or sad, and can discuss objects that aren't in the room.

"It marked some big scientific steps forward," she said. "It means we have to learn to share the planet."

However, some scientists have cast doubt on the extent to which chimpanzees can communicate.

Columbia University scientist Herbert Terrace conducted his own experiments on a chimpanzee he named Nim Chimpsky, to poke fun at author and animal-research critic Noam Chomsky.

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"I was inspired by the Washoe study, but I was skeptical about the data," Terrace said Wednesday.

Nim Chimpsky also learned sign language, but Terrace said he realized over time the chimpanzee could not spontaneously sign. The chimp had rather learned an elaborate way to beg for food or rewards. Terrace said he has not seen evidence of Washoe or other chimpanzees spontaneously signing.

"Language has to involve conversation. It can't be as one-sided as it was with the chimps," he said.

He added that Washoe was an historically important chimp for being the first to learn ASL signs.

Washoe had been living with three other chimps, Tatu, Loulis and Dar, in a sanctuary that includes 5,000 square feet of outdoor space and several smaller indoor areas. Fouts said the facility is one of the best in the country, but even so, she and her husband are not planning to breed any more chimpanzees.

"We are abolitionists," she said. "You can never replace them living with their own families in Africa."

In Ellensburg, leaders have dubbed Washoe, who died of natural causes, a "daughter of the community."

A nonprofit group, Friends of Washoe, is planning a memorial at 10 a.m. Nov. 12. For more details, visit www.friendsofwashoe.org.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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