Washoe is a female chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) known for bringing insight into animal cognition, communication, and social complexity with her capacity for communicating via American Sign Language (ASL). Washoe was born in West Africa in 1965. It is suspected that she was taken to animal dealers after her mother was killed by hunters. Washoe was bought by the U.S. Air Force space program. Two University of Nevada scientists, Drs. Beatrix and Allen Gardner, visited the laboratory and recruited Washoe for their own research. The 10-month-old chimp was brought to the Gardner’s Reno, Nevada, home and taught ASL. The Gardners named her Washoe Pan satyrus after Washoe County, Nevada. Washoe was cross-fostered in the Gardner home, living like a human child. She learned to eat with a fork, drink from a cup, dress herself, use a toilet, play with dolls, and look at picture books.
Washoe is credited with being the first nonhuman to acquire a human language. Using imitation, encouraged babbling, instrumental conditioning, and other techniques, Washoe began learning how to sign for basic objects such as food. After 51 months of training, Washoe had acquired approximately 132 ASL signs or “words.” She used the signs for classes of referents, rather than simply for specific exemplars. For example, Washoe used the sign “open” to ask for various objects to be opened such as doors, cupboards, and jar lids. She also understood more signs than she produced or used.
In September 1967, a graduate research assistant, Roger Fouts, began working with Washoe. In 1970, the decision was made to send Washoe to the University of Oklahoma with Fouts and his wife, Deborah. In 1980, they moved again, this time to Central Washington University (CWU) where Washoe joined the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI). At CWU, Washoe became the matriarch of a small group of young chimpanzees who had also been cross-fostered and taught ASL. The chimpanzees in Washoe’s new family included Moja, Tatu, and Dar. Loulis was a later addition and became Washoe’s adopted son. Loulis was the only chimpanzee in Washoe’s family that was not cross-fostered or taught ASL by humans. Instead, Loulis learned ASL from the other chimpanzees, especially Washoe. Washoe molded Loulis’s hands into specific signs that Loulis eventually used himself. As an infant, Loulis acquired and used approximately 47 signs.
The researchers at CHCI have gathered evidence in support of the notion that chimpanzees have the capacity for human language. Notwithstanding, there have been numerous studies and publications on this controversial topic, with many researchers arguing that chimpanzees are incapable of human language. Regardless of these claims, research with Washoe continues. Currently, a staff of 45 graduate and undergraduate students, along with Roger and Deborah Fouts, are working to learn more about Washoe and her family. Much of the data are taken from video recordings. All research conducted at the institute is at the will and interest of the chimpanzees. Studies are halted and sometimes cancelled all together if the chimpanzees do not want to participate.
- Central Washington University. (n.d.). Washoe biography. Retrieved September 25,2004, from The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute website.
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- Fouts, R., & Mills, S. T. (1997). Next of kin: My conversations with chimpanzees. New York: HarperCollins.
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