Chimp that learnt sign language dies

WASHOE, a female chimpanzee believed to be the first non-human to acquire human language, has died of natural causes at a Washington state research institute.

Washoe had learned American sign language in a research project in Nevada and died at Washington University’s Ellensburg campus, said institute co-founders Roger and Deborah Fouts.

She was born in Africa in 1965. A memorial is planned for November 12.

“Washoe was an emissary, bringing us a message of respect for nature,” Dr Mary Lee Jensvold, assistant director of the institute, said yesterday.

Washoe also taught sign language to three younger chimps who remain at the institute, Central Washington spokeswoman Becky Watson said. They are Tatu, 31, Loulis, 29, and Dar, 31.

Washoe was the only chimpanzee at the institute born in Africa and was the matriarch of the chimpanzee family. She was named after Washoe County, Nevada, where she lived with Drs Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno, from 1966 to 1970.

Primate researcher Jane Goodall, in Roger Fouts’ book Next Of Kin, noted the importance of the work with Washoe.

“Roger, through his conversations with Washoe and her extended family, has opened a window into the cognitive workings of a chimpanzee’s mind that adds new dimension to our understanding,” Ms Goodall was quoted as saying.

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