chimpanzee human communication institute

Obit of the Day (Historical): Washoe (2007)

Beatrix and Allen Gardner believed that chimpanzees could be taught to communicate but felt that projects that attempted to teach the primates to speak were bound to fail. The turned to sign language to give chimps an outlet of expression.

The Gardners adopted a chimpanzee named Washoe (for Washoe County, Nevada) from scientists who had captured the ape as a baby in West Africa. Over the next five years the Gardners used American Sign Langugage to try and bridge the communication gap between chimps and humans. But this experiment did not take place in a lab, instead the Gardners were committed to raising Washoe as a surrogate child, clothing him, feeding him at the family dinner table, and even providing him his own trailer area with fully functioning kitchen.

The experiment appeared to be successful shocking the scientific community when the Gardners revealed that no only did Washoe know 350 different signs but could combine signs to create new concepts, for example a swan was described as “water bird” and Thermos was “metal drink cup.” Washoe even showed empathy.

After a caregiver had left and not returned to Washoe for a period of time, once back with the chimp Washoe refused to interact with her. Eventually the caregiver signed to Washoe “my baby died,” explaining her absence. Washoe put her head down and then signed the words for “cry” and "drew” a tear down her face.

After five years, the Gardners transferred Washoe to the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University, where she was cared for by former students of the Gardners, Roger and Deborah Fouts.

Washoe lived at the Institute until 2007 when she died at the age of 42.

Sources: NY Times and Wikipedia

Image of Washoe with two project assistants, circa 1966-1969, and courtesy of