Researchers sees chimps as friends and equals.
Dar died last Saturday of cardiac failure at the Chimpanzee & Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University. He was 36.
He was one of five chimpanzees who learned American Sign Language and who were close to each other and to the human researchers at the institute.
It’s one thing to casually notice the outward similarities of humans and chimps or to read how much DNA we share, but that sense of kinship deepens with time spent with them.
Mary Lee Jensvold, an associate professor of anthropology at CWU, is director of the institute. When I spoke with her about Dar and her work, what stood out was her perspective on our relationship with other animals.
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“There is a lot of grief involved with keeping folks in cages who are your closest friends,” she said. In a way, “a death is a blessing. It’s like, ‘OK, you don’t have to do this anymore.’ “
Jensvold, who has worked with the chimps since she was a grad student in 1986, said she wanted to work with animals long before college and that what she’s doing now is her dream job. But she didn’t know until she started working with chimps how conflicted she would feel.
This is true even though the work she does is not physically invasive, not like biomedical research.
The institute in Ellensburg has studied how chimps use language with humans and with each other. Jensvold has a new paper, not on sign language, but chimp’s natural gestures, some of which she uses in interacting with the chimps to meet them on their own terms. And the institute works to improve conditions for chimps in captivity, like studying the impact on chimps of interactions with zoo visitors.
When we spoke Tuesday, she told me about a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, assessing the necessity of using chimps in biomedical research. It found no reason for it, and only the U.S. still allows it. In the wake of the report, the U.S. government suspended new federal funding for biomedical research using chimpanzees.
Jensvold said there are thousands of monkeys, dogs and mice being used in research. That troubles her. “Our culture still sees humans as distinctly different from nonhumans and distinctly better.”
Of course humans don’t always recognize our kinship to each other. Jensvold said that like chimps, it’s in our nature to draw boundaries, but we can override that.
“If someone said to me that my research needs to stop because it was not good for chimps,” Jensvold said, “I would stop. That’s fine with me.”
She told me about one project her team stopped. They always give chimps things to nest with at night, usually blankets. In the study they substituted other items, such as burlap bags and shredded paper.
“We stopped when Dar said that he was good, and asked for a blanket,” Jensvold said. “He was telling us we were punishing him, and we ended it.” How often do we even listen to each other as well as she listens to the chimps?
Dar es Salaam was born at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and raised at home as if he were a deaf human child by two scientists, Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno. He came to Ellensburg in 1981, a year after another scientist couple, Roger and Deborah Fouts, created the institute with Washoe, the first chimp to learn American Sign Language.
Thousands of people visit the chimps through the facility’s Chimposium program. There are two chimps at the institute now, Tatu, who is about to be 38, and Loulis, who is 34. Because chimpanzees are social animals who need to belong to a group, Jensvold feels an urgent need to bring in other chimps.
Chimps in the wild are designated an endangered species, but there are lots of captive chimps in the U.S. In some states (not Washington) it’s legal to breed and sell them as pets. And there are chimps in other research settings elsewhere in the country.
Jensvold said wherever the chimps come from, she and the other researchers will do as much as they can to make their lives easier.
“I have a 14-year-old daughter. I take her all over the world and expose her to things and see her thrive. That can’t happen with the chimps.”
She said she doesn’t keep her dog in a cage and chimps are closer to people than dogs. But adult chimps are powerful and potentially dangerous. “My dog sleeps on my bed and Tatu and Loulis can’t, and that is very, very difficult.”
It’s illegal to import chimps from the wild. It should be illegal to breed and sell them domestically.
Jensvold looks forward to the day when there are no chimps in captivity, and in the meantime, she tries to treat them humanely. “But it is never going to be the same as being able to walk out the door,” she said, “and that is heartbreaking.”
Her empathy is heart-lifting. Our species would be better off with more of it.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jerrylarge.