The passing of the parrot Alex, who spent 30 years in a laboratory learning to speak and understand many English words, has prompted a discussion about one point that Alex raised repeatedly: These experiments are boring. It is said that when the parrot got tired of identifying objects or answering questions, he simply stated, “I’m going away now.”
Presumably, Alex got his break, but it raises an interesting question: If you teach animals to speak our language, shouldn’t you listen to what they say? And perhaps just as important ¯shouldn’t you ask the right questions?
Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has spent three decades studying language learning in great apes and recently published a scientific journal article on the topic.
Savage-Rumbaugh points out that scientists’ efforts (including hers) to teach chimpanzees English words are somewhat meaningless if what we hope to learn is something about real communication among chimpanzees in their own world.
These studies are compromised because they are limited to individual chimpanzees and are abandoned (along with the chimp—usually to a cage somewhere for the next four or five decades) once the animal has grown strong enough to, like Alex, refuse to cooperate.
Thus researchers have missed an opportunity to hear what chimpanzees might say about the experience of being a member of the ape culture.
Savage-Rumbaugh is trying to rectify this oversight now with a special group of bonobos (close relatives of chimpanzees) who live in a trans-species culture—one that is both bonobo and human—and communicate across both cultures. With the goal of finding out exactly what makes their lives meaningful, at least in captivity, Savage-Rumbaugh asked some of the bonobos yes-or-no questions. (Hear some of the animals’ answers at www.GreatApeTrust.org.)