Amazing Apes?

January 22, 1995|By Tina Kelley

Loulis and I looked at each other long and hard, like strangers at a family reunion searching for a resemblance.

Then he planted a big open-mouthed kiss on the bullet-proof, inch-thick plexiglass separating us, and I hooked my index fingers like links in a chain, a sign that I wanted to be friends.

I still needed some clue that would tell me if he was from Grandpa's or Grandma's side of the family. But he seemed to assume we'd been introduced.

"Chase!" he signed, running one fist down his forearm, and I ran ahead of him the length of the window.

Loulis is a chimpanzee, the first to learn American Sign Language from another chimp, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, the directors of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University. Loulis' teacher was his adoptive mother, a chimp named Washoe, who is considered the first non-human to acquire a human language.

I'm meeting Loulis and Washoe and three other chimps at the institute in Ellensburg, Wash., where they interact with school classes and the general public, helping people talk to the animals. The Foutses hope that their communication studies will increase public concern for the rapidly disappearing wild chimpanzees -- and for all creatures.

But there are those who think the institute and its supporters are naive, misguided, even guilty of bad science. Critics say the chimps are simply mimicking their trainers, who are too eager to interpret gestures as meaningful communication. Debates rage over the meaning of language and the line between humans and apes, homing in on the concept of species. The topic becomes as charged as race, religion and nationality: Are we better than they are? And do we have the right to have power over them?

Each year it seems, humans and chimpanzees get closer on the evolutionary scale. Just last fall researchers from Japan and the United States announced the discovery of bones belonging to Australopithecus ramidus, a creature who lived 4.4 million years ago -- 500,000 years earlier than the earliest ancestors of humans. Archaeologists believe the creature brings us closer to the missing link between apes and humans, that it may have lived very close to the time human and ape ancestors parted ways.

Genetically, humans differ from chimps by only slightly more than 1 percent of our DNA, say molecular geneticists Mary-Claire King and A. C. Wilson. That makes chimps more closely related (( to us than to gorillas. This similarity makes them useful for medical studies, as they often react to diseases and medications in very human ways. And it makes them prime candidates for studies in communication.

As the line blurs between my distant ancestors and Loulis', the directors of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute are focusing on the similarities between humans and chimps, whose numbers in the wild are decreasing.

"The more we know, the more we can relate on a personal level, the more we can hope to relate to them as a species," Roger Fouts said. "It has to do with chimp survival. . . . We're about to lose a sibling species. What would you do if someone said your brother or sister would die if you don't do something?"

Of course, ever since Darwin, some humans have balked at the idea that we are related to hairy apes. And some humans are unlikely to believe these apes can learn something as human as language.

I was jumping into the fray right at the source, looking into the face of a lurching, sociable, 16-year-old chimpanzee.

It's a humbling experience, preparing to meet these closest relatives in the observation room at the institute. Like just before a visit to the maiden aunts, I had the fear of breaking something fragile, of breaching some unknowable etiquette.

A class from the East Valley Middle School in Yakima, Wash., and I were instructed to keep our heads low, stoop our shoulders and lift a bent wrist to the window as a sign of submissiveness. We couldn't show our upper teeth, a sign of hostility. For a real chimp smile, we could stick our lower jaws out, teeth and all. We could pat our biceps to indicate we wanted hugs. But we should expect aggressive behavior from the chimpanzees.

"You're visiting them in their home," said institute docent Jean Putnam. "This is not a zoo. They don't perform. They're not trained to do tricks."

We practiced our gestures for a minute, then slouched toward the dark viewing room. We kept away from the windows, only approaching when the docents asked for volunteers.

Through the plexiglass we could see a yard, part of the 6,000 square feet of space where the chimps play, eat and sleep. There are fire hoses, swinging tires and cargo nets to play with. There are caves, ledges and rocks to climb on. The chimps can see us through the window. We can see bits of their sleeping quarters to one side.

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