Recently, we mourned the loss of an icon―Washoe. She was one of the few chimpanzees people are likely to know by name―in large part because she learned to use American Sign Language. She famously taught it to fellow chimpanzees, and the people who know her best shared stories about her fibs and her apparent sense of humor. Was it language? It seems that not everyone is convinced, but does that matter? No one disputes that communication took place. Whether human or chimpanzee, Washoe’s companions shared and created meaning with her.
Thanks to decades of fieldwork by scientists from around the globe, we know a great deal about chimpanzees like Washoe, who was herself taken from Africa many decades ago. In June, scientists explained how chimpanzees would freely choose to help a human if they saw that he or she needed help. In March, news stories came out about chimpanzees who showed particular kindness and understanding to group members who had cerebral palsy. If we add these to the long list of things once thought to be the special domain of humans―culture, tool use, the capacity for language―the gap between humans and chimpanzees becomes smaller and smaller. We are not identical, but we have a great deal in common.
This isn’t altogether surprising as chimpanzees are our closest primate relatives, sharing 98 or 99 percent of our DNA. We’ve all heard that chimpanzees are smart and that they are an endangered species. But Washoe revealed to us something beyond our broad similarities. Some people writing about her death have claimed that she changed what it meant to be human―that she changed our society. That, I suppose, is true―but there is more to that lesson. Washoe also helped us see what it means to be chimpanzee. When she spoke her mind, signing about her wants and needs, playing jokes or tricks, showing empathy, she embodied a message of compassion―one that we have not fully heard.
Neither the knowledge of our commonalities with chimpanzees―cognitive, cultural and otherwise―nor their capacity to suffer has inspired adequate protection for these animals. Despite their bright minds and unique personalities, many chimpanzees spend their lives inside small metal laboratory cages, where they endure terror, physical pain and trauma. People may be shocked to learn that laboratories in the U.S. are allowed to keep chimpanzees in cages about the size of a kitchen table.
In light of the lessons taught by Washoe, her fellow signing apes, and all that we know about chimpanzees, we must now realize that how we currently keep and treat chimpanzees in U.S. laboratories is replete with ethical problems. It’s time for the U.S. to join nations all over the world, from Austria to Liberia and New Zealand, that have banned experiments on chimpanzees. It is the right and compassionate thing to do. I’m sure that Washoe would have signed that she agreed.
Debra Durham, Ph.D., primate specialist for PETA, has a doctoral degree in animal behavior and has studied primates for the last 10 years. Contact People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.StopAnimalTests.com.