September 19, 2014

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Chimp that had learned to use sign language dies

SPOKANE, Wash. — Washoe, a female chimpanzee said to be the first non-human to acquire human language, has died of natural causes at the research institute where she was kept.

AP FILE
This picture, provided by Central Washington University, shows Washoe, a female chimpanzee believed to be the first non-human to acquire human language.

Washoe, who first learned a bit of American Sign Language in a research project in Nevada, had been living on Central Washington University’s Ellensburg campus since 1980. Her keepers said she had a vocabulary of about 250 words, although critics contended Washoe and some other primates learned to imitate sign language, but did not develop true language skills.

She died Tuesday night, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, co-founders of The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on the campus. She was born in Africa about 1965.

She was taken to the veterinary hospital at Washington State University on Wednesday for a necropsy. Her memorial will be Nov. 12.

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

The Fouts went to Central Washington from Oklahoma in 1980 to create a home for Washoe and other chimps.

“The entire CWU community and the Ellensburg community are feeling the loss of our friend, Washoe, one of our daughters,” said CWU President Jerilyn S. McIntyre.

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 for Washoe County, Nev., where she lived with Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno, from 1966 to 1970.