chimps in the news

This week’s New Yorker alerted me to the existence of a new film on Nim Chimpsky, one of Lucy’s contemporaries. Project Nim (see a clip here) opened this year’s Sundance Festival and has been picked up by HBO Films.

In addition, the current New York magazine carries the story of Travis, a chimp that lived in a human home for 15 years (three years longer than Lucy lasted with the Temerlins). For those of us working on this show, and for those of you following it, there is nothing new here. Travis is an adorable, affectionate infant. Travis learns lots of human behaviors, like using the toilet and drinking wine. Travis becomes a minor celebrity. And then it all goes tragically wrong. The only thing that surprised me is the fact that, after everything we learned from Nim, Lucy, and all the other chimps we toyed with in the 60s and 70s, a family was allowed to adopt a chimp in 1995.

men are from mars, women are from venus, dogs are from…?

A few items of interest:

A New York Times article on a border collie with a vocabulary 1,022 nouns and assorted verbs.

A Radiolab episode on the minds of animals–blessed hamsters, grateful whales, guilty dogs.

Another New York Times article on well-meaning pet owners who cook for their companions. Home-cooking may be a be motivated by love, but then there is the story of the German shepherd puppy so weakened by his inappropriately balanced diet that he walked on his elbows.

what were they thinking?

We asked ourselves this question a lot. We had to keep reminding ourselves it was a different time. In the 1960s, family values looked like kids bouncing around the back of the station wagon without seatbelts while mom and dad filled the car with cigarette smoke. Just as dangerous as what we didn’t yet know was the seduction of science. Moms who wanted to do right by their infants fed them formula. And in the cutting-edge home economics department of Cornell University, students had their own labs (or “practice apartments”) complete with “practice babies” secured from orphanages. After a year of being “nurtured” by a revolving group of students applying the latest scientific methods of childrearing, the babies were released for adoption. (Does this sound familiar?) The program was discontinued in the late 1960s when “research in child development pointed to the need for a primary bond with a single caregiver.” Well, duh. Any of the people in the chimp cross-fostering experiment could have told you that.


Rose: (referring to some crazy effect John wrote) I actually learned how to do something new.

Andie: How did you do that?

Rose: (beat) I practiced it.

One of my favorite aspects of last week was being able to spend so much time in the company of practicing musicians. By practicing musicians, I don’t just mean musicians in rehearsal. (I still play piano a little bit — in fact I’m rehearsing for a Christmas concert right now — but that doesn’t make me a practicing musician anymore than occasionally choosing “Rock Your Asana” class over an hour on the elliptical machine makes someone a practicing yogi.) The kick-ass musicians of Team REDSHIFT not only dedicate countless hours to developing and maintaining incredible technical chops, they also cultivate a special quality of attentiveness to their own sounds and each other’s. It was fascinating to observe this tight-knit group working together to solve problems and make magical sounds. Here are the voices of REDSHIFT in rehearsal, with a few interjections from other members of Team Monkey:

“So we should kind of do what happened, except on purpose.”

“I didn’t write it in. (beat) I guess that’s why it’s not marked.”

“Don’t follow me.”

“I don’t know if you made a point to not listen to each other, or if you did listen to each other, but whatever you did, it was exactly right.”

“Never follow me.”

“I think you can love it a little bit more.”

“My part would be … pretty tough at that speed … but we could try.”

“Don’t ever follow me.”

“It’s like, every time Jocelyn plays a pretty chord, everyone has to reset.”

“You can run and tell that, Andie Springer!”

 “I’m actually not even counting at all.”

There were also many periods of sustained laughter. Anyone eavesdropping might wonder at the waste of rehearsal time, but a balance of rigor and flexibility — along with a healthy dose of humor — is an important part of Team REDSHIFT’s practice, especially when it comes to a piece like this. As John has said, his music isn’t necessarily hard to play, but it’s very hard to put together. It requires intense focus, but without the occasional softening effect of laughter, the atmosphere could easily become unproductively brittle.

The more I read about the cross-fostering experiments of the 60s and 70s, the more I see a story of conflicting practices. In order for the chimps’ language use to be judged “human,” the signs needed to be used spontaneously, within relationships. However, from the standpoint of scientific practice, such relationships junk the data. In an effort to get around this, some of the people involved made a clear choice to act as practicing scientists, while others practiced a version of parenthood, responding more flexibly and spontaneously to their chimp children in an attempt to inspire “human” behavior from them. This is not to say that the two practices are diametrically opposed — certainly science requires creativity, just as parenting requires discipline — but they’re different enough that you can’t really do both. Skillful practice demands you choose a path and stick to it. Maurice Temerlin attempts to be both scientist and father in his relationship with Lucy, and when those paths diverge, the conflict is (one) part of what makes his story so fascinating.

adventures with chimps: what I know so far

American Opera Projects hosted a TERRIFIC evening for us last night. We’re all still digesting the experience…. expect lots more words and thoughts some time next week. 

Putting together the printed program required me to step back and synthesize everything I’ve learned to date about our interactions with chimps in the second half of the 20th century. For those who didn’t attend, or who didn’t get a program (we were SOLD OUT!), I’ve reproduced the note below.

 * * * * * 

In the 1960s, psychotherapist and chimpanzee breeder Dr. William Lemmon began an ambitious series of cross-fostering experiments out of his Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma. Lucy, adopted by Maurice and Jane Temerlin in 1964, was one of a number of infant chimps sent to live in species isolation with Lemmon’s students, patients and colleagues.

In relating humorous stories about their adopted children’s antics, Dr. Lemmon’s caretakers reveal something about the environments in which the chimps were raised. Nim Chimpsky, who lived in a brownstone on West 78th Street for the first year of his life, later learned to sign “stone” “smoke” “now” when he wanted to unwind with his caretakers. Lucy demonstrated her mastery with keys by locking Temerlin out of the house — while he was doing yoga in the nude on the porch. Signing up for the cross-fostering experiment required a certain sense of adventure, a certain disregard for conventional values, and the presence of a chimpanzee inevitably intensified the charged atmosphere that already existed in these households. Marriages cracked open — and often stayed that way. Many of the chimp placements lasted scarcely a year.

While it may be true that prospective parents never really know what they are getting into, the participants in the cross-fostering experiments of the 1960s and 1970s seemed particularly innocent of reality. Looking at his adorable newborn daughter, wrote Temerlin, “I never realized that in eight to ten years she would weigh one hundred pounds and be five to seven times as strong as I was.”

At the heart of the various placements were questions about what makes us human. Could chimps — who share more than 98% of our genetic material — become even more “human” when immersed in an enriched environment?  Jane Goodall had already observed chimps making and using tools in the wild. For many scientists, language was the final frontier. Early experiments had failed: in 1931, Winthrop and Luella Kellogg raised Gua side-by-side with their infant son and attempted to teach him to speak by manipulating his mouth; almost two decades later, Keith and Catherine Hayes took a similar (and equally unsuccessful) approach with Viki. Recognizing that chimpanzees’ vocal apparatus simply isn’t set up for a sophisticated spoken language, Beatrix and Allen Gardner proposed that chimps might learn to master a different kind of language, and in 1966, Washoe, working with Roger Fouts, became the first chimp to use American Sign Language (ASL).

In 1970, Fouts and Washoe moved to the Institute for Primate Studies, and Fouts began to work with many of the cross-fostered chimps, including Lucy. For the Temerlins, Lucy’s acquisition of a language they could share was interesting, although not essential. “I did not feel that if Lucy acquired ASL it would enhance communication between us,” wrote Temerlin. “All four of us could read one another’s moods and feelings with ease, and most of the time Lucy understood and obeyed my spoken words.”

Lucy and many other cross-fostered chimps demonstrated proficiency with ASL. Even when removed from their human families, they attempted to use signs to communicate with both chimps and humans (including mystified attendants at research labs). In some sanctuary environments, sign language use spread among chimpanzee residents. Washoe passed her signs to her adopted son, Loulis. Still, at least one prominent scientist argued that the chimps’ use of ASL did not constitute a genuine language.

Lucy lived with the Temerlins for 12 years — the longest time any chimp had spent in a human home. As the seventies wound down, so did Dr. Lemmon’s cross-fostering project. The Institute for Primate Studies shipped its first batch of chimps to a research facility at NYU in 1981 — just a few years after the Temerlins concluded they could no longer keep Lucy at home — and closed down completely by 1985.

As Dr. Lemmon’s experiments came to an end, the results regarding language were inconclusive, but certain facts were undeniable: Chimps have a rich emotional and intellectual life, one that can be shaped by living with a human family, but not to the extent that they can stay forever.

Wishing to spare their daughter a future in a cage, the Temerlins decided to send Lucy to an island sanctuary to be rehabilitated. The skill set that caught the public imagination was largely useless to Lucy in the wild, and while her learned behaviors did not necessarily destroy her capacity to acquire more typical chimp skills, they certainly affected her will to do so. Still, under the tutelage of Janis Carter, Lucy eventually learned to sleep in trees, eat leaves, and enjoy the company of other chimps. But she never learned to fear humans, which probably led to her apparent demise at the hands of a poacher.

The folly of cross-fostering seems pretty obvious to us now, but — whether due to willful ignorance or well-meaning naivete — the inevitability of an unhappy ending seems not to have occurred to the Temerlins or the others who signed up for the adventure of raising a young chimp. Our Basic Nature views the experiment through the wide eyes of Maurice Temerlin as he wrote his 1975 memoir. In Lucy: Growing Up Human, he proudly relates stories of his daughter’s accomplishments, describing and analyzing her interactions — with family members, other humans, a kitten, a herd of cattle — in a series of episodes that are by turns touching, amazing, hilarious and disturbing. He is particularly fascinated by her experimental interactions with members of other species. “I often have the feeling,” wrote Temerlin, “that the deeper I look into Lucy the more I see of my own basic nature.”

based on a true story

When we first began to talk about making this piece, we knew the story of Maurice Temerlin and his daughter, Lucy, via Radiolab. Using excerpts from Temerlin’s memoirs and the testimony of those who knew Lucy, the show touched on some of the more remarkable aspects of Lucy’s 12 years with the Temerlins (such as Lucy’s use of language) as well as the more sensational aspects (such as her sexual interest in human males). The episode spanned Lucy’s entire life, which opened cute (with Jane disguising Lucy for the trip home on a commercial airline) and ended tragically.Although I haven’t done the math regarding the comments on the RadioLab piece, on a quick scan most people seemed to regard Temerlin’s project as “appalling,” “disgusting,” “repugnant.” I don’t disagree — none of us do. But a one-sided villain makes for pretty boring material for a one-man opera. And besides, as the show made clear, Temerlin did love his daughter — even if he made some very, very poor choices. Indeed, we suspected the information about Lucy’s terrible end made it difficult for RadioLab listeners to consider some of the more subtle questions the story raised about how we relate to other species.

Our next step was to get Temerlin’s side of the story, so we located a couple of copies of Growing Up Human, his memoir. I can’t say it made me like him more, but book did a lot for us in terms of allowing us to think of him as a human being — albeit a somewhat freakish one. (One person who commented on the RadioLab story knew Temerlin, and she confirmed this impression: “It was generally understood that the Termerlin’s were pretty far out, and perhaps a bit crazy.”) Certainly, he comes across as devoted to Lucy. But while he displays a commitment to being a good father, he also has a commitment to science, which often leads him down some disturbing paths.

John has used the word “objective” to describe our intent with this piece, though that’s not exactly right. Lucy’s story unfolded over years, with countless players. In reducing the story to manageable size — a radio show, an opera, an article, a book — it’s impossible to be completely objective. Every choice about what to include, what to leave out, shapes the story in a way that may have more to do with the storytellers than the subject.

We are primarily interested in everyday life in the Temerlin household, and the degree to which each of the inhabitants traversed the spectrum of behaviors that we typically label “beastly” to “human.” In order not to distract the audience, we made a conscious choice to leave out some of the more sensational facts, including the circumstances of Lucy’s death. Still, the deeper we got into the story, the more we learned about chimps, the more horrified we were by the Temerlins’ decision to adopt a chimp.

Recently I encountered an overlapping true story told by Roger Fouts, Lucy’s sign language tutor and a leading primate researcher. His book, Next of Kin, tells of his life with chimpanzees. As I read about these animals’ extraordinary — shall we say, “human” — capacities, I was even more heartbroken about Lucy’s fate. But I also learned something new about Temerlin — or at least, the world in which he lived. According to Fouts, the Temerlins were one of many families that adopted baby chimps at the urging of one Dr. William Lemmon. Not only was Lemmon, a psychotherapist, interested in how the young chimps would develop, he felt that a chimp in the household would have therapeutic value for certain of his patients.

Somehow, the knowledge that Temerlin didn’t cook up the harebrained scheme on his own caused my feelings about him to shift yet again. Fouts also suggests that Lucy’s return to the wild was somehow tied to an ugly break between Temerlin and Lemmon. Luckily, this new information does not conflict with the sliver of the story we have chosen to tell (though I suspect it may inform Andy’s performance in some way).

After the first reading in St. Paul, we had an audience talk-back. One person was angry at Temerlin, whom he called “arrogant”— and worse. Another said that her strongest impression was of Temerlin’s love for Lucy. We were pretty happy with this pair of responses. We know a 50-minute opera cannot tell the whole story. But I hope we will begin to do justice to its complexity.

Jane Goodall on 50 years with chimpanzees

Q. When you first reported chimp tool use, Dr. Leakey declared, “We must now redefine man, redefine tool or accept chimpanzees as human!” Did that ever happen?

A. It’s never happened. Every time someone has shown that chimpanzees or any other animal possesses a characteristic which we used to think was unique to us, there’s an outcry from either scientists or religious people: “It can’t be so.”

It becomes illogical. For a long time people used chimpanzees in medical research because of all the amazing biological similarities. They used them to investigate not only human diseases but mental conditions like depression. Yet, they are still reluctant to admit similarities in mind and expressive emotion.

From the New York Times. Read the whole thing here.

twin cities recap

On Sunday John and I landed in Minneapolis, toy piano in tow.

We traveled west at the invitation of Ben Krywosz, who had offered us an opportunity to present Our Basic Nature on Nautilus Music-Theatre’s “Rough Cuts” series. Ben describes “Rough Cuts” as a kind of Zen practice, an ongoing commitment to airing works-in-process, in a wide variety of styles, on a regular biweekly schedule. There is a rigorous informality to the presentational style, which always includes music stands, dialogue between artists and audience members, and cookies and milk.

Chris Roberts of Minnesota Public Radio stopped by our first rehearsal to record a bit of music and talk to us about Lucy and her dad. The resulting story, which aired less than 24 hours later, blew us away. Chris managed to digest about an hour’s worth of rambling conversation into a tight, compelling story with a complicated sonic style not unlike a Radiolab episode.

Andy and Chris

John and mascot

It was my first time to the Twin Cities, and John’s, and we were both excited to visit one of the most culturally vibrant places in the country. They’re not just home to Nautilus and MPR (although that ought to be enough for anyone). The Minnesota Opera recently launched a multi-year new works initiative that includes an international coproduction, three revivals of American works and three commissions in seven years. The Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra are similarly committed to programming that celebrates both tradition and innovation. The Guthrie Theater is one of America’s premier regional theaters, and we got a VIP tour of their fabulous new building by the geeky (a compliment in my world) and glamorous Katie Koch, another old friend from Glimmerglass.

We never made it to the Mall of America but we felt this particular store sighting was an auspicious sign indeed.

On Monday night, we performed at Nautilus’s own studio space in St. Paul. Tuesday morning, we crossed the bridge to Minneapolis to speak with some students at Augsburg College.

They were a bright and interesting bunch, and many of them returned that evening for the second night of “Rough Cuts,” which took place on the college campus. For the post-performance discussion, we were joined by Dr. Grace Dyrud, a professor at the college (and Jocelyn’s husband’s aunt) who actually knew Maurice Temerlin.

warming up at Augsburg

In both locations, we were blown away by the intensity and insightfulness of the post-performance comments and questions. The trip was tremendously useful in so many ways, and I’ll have more to say about that – as will everyone, I’m sure – in the coming days.

Meanwhile, a heartfelt heartland “thank you” to:

Meet the Composer, for funding our trip

Nautilus Music-Theatre, for presenting us

Chris Roberts, for telling our story

Dr. Grace Dyrud, for sharing her memories

Ben Krywosz, for his commitment to artists and new work

The “Rough Cuts” audience, for showing up with open ears

Janet Gottschalk Fried and Sonia Thompson, for welcoming us to Augsburg College

Katie, for providing geeky facts that made us love the Twin Cities even more

Andy and Erika, for beds and food and good company

Annika, for providing our mascot and, in general, making our days sparkle

….and away we go!

We’re about to take Lucy on her first outing.  Jocelyn, our intrepid music director, braved blizzard conditions and arrived in the Twin Cities Metro Area last night.  She and I spent a few hours putting together John’s score.  I haven’t had the pleasure of making music with Dueck in a long time, and it is always a pleasure.  She is a damn rock star.

John and Kelley arrive today (with the toy piano).  I’m really looking forward to it.  John has written some hauntingly beautiful music to Kelley’s smart libretto.  Now I better deliver the goods, eh?

I went on down to the Houston zoo…

There are not too many zoos in the US with chimp exhibits, which is disappointing for all of us working on this project…. YouTube is great, but after reading so much about Lucy and her kin, I’d really like to see some of these guys in person. I was recently at the Houston Zoo, where I just missed my chance to meet some of Lucy’s cousins; their new chimp exhibit is set to open December 10. Reading about the preparations for the new arrivals on the zoo’s blog underlined Maurice Temerlin’s dedication and sheer chutzpah in bringing a chimp to live in their family home. There’s also a terrific video of some of the chimps (one named Lucy!) who will eventually inhabit these swank new digs.

I had a nice day at the zoo, despite its chimplessness. Chimps may resemble us more than any other species, but I could identify with lots of the behaviors and postures we saw.

This orangutan, with thumb and forefinger just touching and arm outstretched to rest on knee, looks ready for meditation. Don’t be fooled. This is actually the “looking for a handout” mudra, which I saw performed repeatedly. I see we need to work on aparigraha…

This sunbathing bear has arranged herself in a classic pinup pose.

We saw so many amazing creatures. Mostly I was so awestruck that I forgot to take pictures. Thank goodness I had my wits about me when I met this mandrill in the bathroom.