Thursday, November 01, 2007

Washoe The Sign-Language Chimp Dies At 42

washoeWashoe, a female chimpanzee said to be the first non-human to acquire human language, has died at the age of 42 at Central Washington University.

Washoe, who first learned some American Sign Language in a research project in Nevada, had been living on CWU's Ellensburg campus since 1980. Critics contended Washoe and some other primates learned to imitate sign language, but not true language skills.

Washoe died of natural causes Tuesday night, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, co-founders of The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on the campus.

Washoe was born in Africa about 1965. Her memorial will be Nov. 12.

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

"Washoe was a treasured member of our family," the Fouts said in a statement.

The Fouts came to CWU from Oklahoma in 1980 to create a home for Washoe and other chimps.

"Washoe was an emissary, bringing us a message of respect for nature," Mary Lee Jensvold, assistant director of the nonprofit institute, said Wednesday.

Washoe had a reported vocabulary of about 250 words. She taught sign language to three younger chimps who remain at the institute, CWU spokeswoman Becky Watson said. They are Tatu, 31, Loulis, 29, and Dar, 31.

Two of Washoe's offspring preceded her in death.

Washoe was the only chimpanzee at the institute who was born in Africa and was the matriarch of the chimpanzee family. She was named for Washoe County, Nev., where she lived with Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner, of the University of Nevada, Reno, from 1966 to 1970.

Washoe and the other CWU chimps lived in a building on campus that could be visited by the public on weekends for "chimposiums."

"Washoe was a reminder of our responsibility to care for all creatures of this planet," said CWU President Jerilyn S. McIntyre. "She touched the lives of the thousands of people who have attended 'Chimposiums' and she was a deeply appreciated member of the Central Washington University and Ellensburg communities."

In 2002, Moja, another of Washoe's family, died. The Fouts' daughter Hillary traveled to Africa to spread Moja's ashes.

Noted primate researcher Jane Goodall, in Roger Fouts' book "Next of Kin," noted the importance of his 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 was 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 claims about Washoe's language skills were disputed by scientists who believed that language is unique to humans. Among those who doubted that chimps could use language were MIT linguist Noam Chomsky and Harvard scientist Steven Pinker.

Chomsky contended that the neural requirements for language developed in humans after the evolutionary split between humans and primates.

Pinker contended that primates simply learn to perform certain acts in order to receive rewards, and do not acquire true language.

Washoe was caught in the wild in 1966 and was about 10 months old when the Gardners began teaching her.

The Gardners tried to make Washoe's environment as similar as possible to what a human infant with deaf parents would experience. Researchers communicated with Washoe by sign language, minimizing the use of spoken words.

The Gardners said that, for example, when Washoe entered their bathroom, she made the sign for "toothbrush," when she saw one.

Washoe also used the sign for "more" in many different situations. At one point, she used the sign for "flower" to express the idea of "smell." After additional training, Washoe was eventually able to differentiate between "smell" and "flower," her supporters said.

Story here.

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