What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are
The Amazing Story of Washoe
Introduction to the book by Roger Fouts -- "Animal Guardian," July-September, 1997
The first chimpanzee I ever knew was Curious George, the mischievous hero of the classic children's book written by H.A. Rey.
It was the late 1940's and I was a small boy. One night my mother read me the story about "a good little monkey" who is captured in Africa by "the man with the yellow hat." The mysterious man pops Curious George into a sack, puts him on a ship and takes him to a big city far away.
Curious George feels sad to leave home. But he is soon having fun. He tries hard to be good, but he can't seem to help getting into trouble. "The naughty little monkey" winds up in prison. His friend, the man with the yellow hat, rescues him and puts him in a zoo, where the story ends happily: "What a nice place for George to live!"
I loved this story. It never occurred to me to wonder why Curious George has to leave his home in the jungle, or who the man with the yellow hat was, or why he put George in zoo. I was only a child.
Twenty years later, when I entered graduate school, I came across another chimpanzee -- a real chimpanzee. Her name was Washoe. She, too, had been brought from the African jungle -- in this case to become part of the American space program. She, too, was an irrepressible bundle of mischief.
Washoe the real chimpanzee was more fantastical than Curious George in one important aspect: she learned how to talk with her hands using American Sign Language. Washoe was the first talking nonhuman, and in the wake of her accomplishment the ancient notion that humans are unique in their capacity for language was shaken forever.
In our first years together, Washoe's origins were a rather romantic mystery to me. I knew she had been "wild collected" in Africa, and I knew that the Gardners had acquired her when she was ten months old from the Holloman Aeromedical Laboratory, in New Mexico, where she was part of the United States space program. Naively, I assumed that Washoe must have been abandoned by her mother, then rescued by some decent person who sent her to America for the best possible care -- like Curious George and the man with the yellow hat.
One of the books in H.A. Rey's Curious George series was eerily prescient about the role of the chimpanzees in the American space program. Published in 1957, Curious George Gets A Medal had the young chimp volunteering to pilot the very first rocket into space because it was too small to hold a human. After flawlessly completing this mission by pulling the correct lever and parachuting to earth, Curious George is given a hero's welcome, complete with photo opportunities and a big gold medal that reads: "To George, the first space monkey." The last line of the book says, "It was the happiest day in George's life."
Four years later, in early 1961, history unfolded along the lines of the storybook. I was a freshman in college at the time. I listened to President John F. Kennedy boldly declare that the United States would beat the Soviets to moon by the end of the decade. NASA had already developed a one-man space capsule -- the Mercury -- for carrying a pilot into space and returning him to earth. But nobody knew what would actually happen to a pilot as he hurled through outer space in a small, bell-shaped can, bombarded by lethal levels of radiation, searing heat, and unimaginable G forces. Why put an American astronaut in danger when you could assess the risks with an animal?
Enter the chimponauts -- our lovable "partners in space." The public knew little about the nature of their mission. We imagined the chimponauts as glorified canaries in the coal mine of outer space. If they survived, then human astronauts would be able to follow in their footsteps; if they perished, then NASA would go back to the drawing board.
It was a bit more complex, however. The chimps had to learn a series of astronaut-like actions that would demonstrate whether taxing mental activity could be conducted under the unprecedented strain of launch, weightlessness, and reentry. Meanwhile, the Mercury capsule would be guided remotely from the ground. The chimpanzees and the men of the Mercury program would be more passengers than pilots.
The Air Force trained its sixty-five chimponauts on a simulated flight panel by means of operant conditioning -- a system of rewards and punishments. When a chimponaut moved the correct lever in response to a blinking light he was given a tasty banana pellet. When he responded incorrectly he was punished with a mild shock on the foot. This banana protocol worked beyond all expectations. In one training exercise, a chimponaut outperformed a visiting congressman by completing seven thousand moves with only twenty misses.
The sorry fate of the chimponauts was not widely known. My own memories of their role in the space program had the same fairytale quality as Curious George Gets A Medal. I assumed that these chimpanzee heroes, including Washoe, had been brought to America humanely -- indeed they had volunteered for their mission -- and that they were amply rewarded for their selfless service to our nation.
It was only years later that I learned the truth about how the Air Force had gone about "recruiting" infant chimpanzees from Africa in 1950s and 1960s. The military procured the chimps from African hunters who stalked mother chimpanzees carrying a baby. Usually the mother was shot out of her hiding place high up in a tree. If she fell on her stomach, then her infant, clinging to her chest, would die along with her. But many mother chimps shielded their infants by falling on their backs. The screaming infant would then be bound hand and foot to a carrying pole and transported to the coast, a harrowing journey usually lasting several days. If the infants survived this second ordeal, and many did not, then they were sold for four or five dollars to a European animal dealer who kept then in a small box for days until the American buyer arrived -- in this case the Air Force. Those still alive when the buyer came were crated up and sent to the United States, a journey that mirrored the slave trade of earlier centuries. Very few babies emerged from the crates. It is estimated that ten chimpanzees died for every one that made it to this country.
By the mid-1960s the United States was no longer launching chimpanzees into space but was conducting medical experiments on them instead. One chimpanzee infant that survived the journey to America in the spring of 1966 was a ten-pound infant named Kathy. She was shipped to the Holloman Aeromedical Laboratory, but before she could become a subject of disease research, fate intervened. As the largest and healthiest infant at Holloman, Kathy greatly appealed to two scientists who were visiting the Air Force laboratory on a recruiting mission of their own. Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner chose ten-month-old Kathy to learn American Sign Language. But the Gardners thought that a chimpanzee, even one raised by humans, should not have such a human name. So when they brought Kathy home they renamed her after county in Nevada where she would grow up: Washoe.