No research unless the chimp agrees

December 3, 1999

Roger Fouts met ten-month-old Washoe in 1967 when a PhD student in psychology. He was assigned to assist the young chimpanzee in becoming the first to learn a human language - American Sign Language. He had no idea that this was the start of a life commitment.

Over the years, Fouts saw the dark side of both behavioural and biomedical research involving chimpanzees. Aside from outright abuse, Fouts became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that his subjects were in captivity. He also knew it was impossible to release the human-reared chimps into the wild, so in 1993 he did what he hoped would be the next best thing and opened the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in Central Washington University. It was to be a place where chimps' needs came first.

"Occasionally, a graduate student will complain that he can't get one of the chimps to take part in a study. 'Too bad,' I'll reply. 'Think up a study that's more fun,'" Fouts says. Studies never involve drilling, testing, or training, and research is only done with the chimps' consent.

"We have found that quality empirical research can and must be humane," says Debbi Fouts, Roger's wife and co-director of the institute, which houses five adult chimpanzees.

This summer, Erin McKenna, a philosophy professor at nearby Pacific Lutheran University, joined a group of undergraduates to be trained as an "apprentice" at CHCI. "We were taught that we were meeting the chimps on their own terms," says McKenna. "We use chimp behaviours and greetings - a head nod, a pronated wrist."

Students are also taught not to talk about the chimps in their presence because they understand a great deal of spoken English as well as ASL. Well attuned to body language, they can sense when people act superior and are likely to treat such people poorly. A sign above the door to the research area reminds visitors: "Please leave your ego at the door!"

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