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.

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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.”

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