If chimpanzees could talk, what would they say?

By Kathy Guillermo

According to a recent study published in the journal Nature, scientists have discovered that a gene called FOXP2, which is believed to be responsible for the evolution of speech in humans, behaves differently in humans than it does in chimpanzees, our closest living relatives. The gene produces a protein in humans that differs by just two amino acids from chimpanzees’ FOXP2 protein. Think about it—if not for those two amino acids, chimpanzees might be able to talk. If they could speak, what would they say?

Actually, we already know what they would say, thanks to the work of people such as Roger Fouts, a professor at Central Washington University who is famous for teaching chimpanzees American Sign Language (ASL). Fouts’ most famous pupil is Washoe, who was the first nonhuman animal to learn ASL and who, in turn, taught it to her adopted son, Loulis. Washoe spontaneously combined words to describe her experiences and desires, using expressions such as “you me hide” and “listen dog.” She also invented names for her possessions, referring to her doll, for instance, as “Baby Mine.” She was even known to fib and tell jokes.

Perhaps Fouts’ second most famous pupil is Booee, a chimpanzee who was taught ASL while he was “on loan” to Fouts. More than a decade later—after Booee had been reclaimed and sent to a laboratory where he was subjected to hepatitis experiments—the TV show 20/20 approached Fouts about reuniting with Booee on camera. Although worried by the prospect of upsetting Booee, Fouts agreed in the hope that the reunion, which would be watched by millions of people, could potentially help Booee and other chimpanzees in laboratories.

I will never forget the footage of Roger entering the laboratory and signing, “Hi, Booee. You remember?” Booee, who had been sitting despondently in his small cage a moment earlier, jumped up and down in excitement, signing his name, “Booee, Booee, Booee,” over and over again. “Yes, you Booee,” Roger signed back. Remembering that Fouts always carried treats, Booee asked for them, even using an old nickname that he had invented for Roger—a flick of his ear with his finger. He and Fouts spent the next several minutes playing games of “chase” and “tickle” like they used to do all those years ago.

As Fouts had hoped, viewers were touched by the joyful reunion, and they were heartbroken when they watched Booee move dejectedly to the back of his cage when the time came to say goodbye. Because of the subsequent outcry, Booee was sent to a sanctuary months later, where he still lives.

Unfortunately, more than 1,000 other chimpanzees remain caged, lonely and miserable in laboratories, despite overwhelming evidence that they are highly intelligent, sensitive animals. They are injected with drugs, infected with diseases that they would never normally contract and subjected to traumatic psychological experiments. When they’re not strapped to a table, they languish in cages—often in windowless rooms—that bear no resemblance to their natural forest and jungle homes. Their spirits are broken from years of needles, scalpels, toxins, pain, solitude, fear and the overwhelming nothingness of waking up, day after day, in a cold metal box.

The U.K., Japan, Austria, New Zealand and the Netherlands have prohibited the use of great apes for invasive research and testing. The U.S. is the only country in the world that continues large-scale use of chimpanzees in experiments. That may change if The Great Ape Protection Act—a bill that would phase out the use of chimpanzees in invasive research and retire federally owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries—ever becomes law.

If chimpanzees could talk, they would almost certainly say, “Let me out,” as one of Booee’s fellow inmates signed. Yes, it’s time to let them out. They are not test tubes with fur. They have thoughts, feelings and desires. It’s time to let them be chimpanzees.

Kathy Guillermo is the vice president of laboratory investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Leave a Reply