Friday, October 5, 2012

Key Out Now: ending the failed ape language research projects

I cannot find anyone actively working in the great ape field who believes that the Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary has a viable future. Nor do I find much beyond sighs and sorrow when I ask about the viability of Penny Patterson’s Gorilla Foundation, which is basically a permanent fundraiser for Koko’s care and Patterson’s lifetime salary. Central Washington University's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, the last home for signing chimpanzee Washoe, has turned into a sideshow for paying customers. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Penny Patterson, and Roger Fouts are the public faces of failure for the language research projects that started with so much hope in the 1970s.

Most of the public focus this summer has been on the continuing debacle at Iowa’s Great Ape Trust Bonobo Hope, which lost its rich benefactor and most of its professional staff by January 2012. After the Bonobo 12 issued their open letter to the board of directors, detailing the reasons why they feared for the health and safety of the bonobos, some experts in the great ape professional community tried to offer guidance and assistance to both Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and to board members. They did it at their own expense and, it appears, their help was spurned.

I recently learned that two of board members have resigned. Dr. Ed Wasserman, the Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Iowa, and Dr. Paul Lasley, professor and department chair at Iowa State University’s Department of Sociology, evidently joined the Great Ape Trust Board of Trustees sometime in 2011, according to the organization’s filings with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. In a major blow to any shreds of remaining credibility of so-called “research” at Bonobo Hope, and in a stunning rebuke to the flailing “leadership” trying to pull this crisis back from the brink of financial ruin, the two turned in their walking papers last week, after being briefed on the true extent of the ape management crisis. (I asked both men for comments, and I have not yet received any response.)

Bob Ingersoll and Nim, before Nim was sent to LEMSIP
When did the promise of ape language research fail? What have we learned over the past 40 years? What will happen to the chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos who are still subjected to “research” that produces nothing but shrugs and mockery among legitimate primate researchers around the world? One man who has a unique and close-up perspective is Robert Ingersoll and, fortunately, he agreed to share his thoughts. On the record. Now that is one brave man…

You will know Bob from the movie Project Nim. He was a graduate assistant in Roger Fouts’ American Sign Language research program at the Institute of Primate Studies at Oklahoma University during the 1970s, when ape language research was in its heyday. The good times did not last long. Fouts had a falling out with others at OU, and he took his signing chimpanzee Washoe to Washington. The research with Nim ended badly, and the poor chimp ended up in LEMSIP – until he was rescued through an underground rescue effort, with the active support of LEMSIP’s Dr. James Mahoney and Bob. Patterson is still with Queen Koko, as poor ignored gorilla Ndume, a 31-year-old silverback still owned (but evidently abandoned) by the Cincinnati Zoo, lives in an isolated trailer with poor medical care. (USDA APHIS inspectors, according to information from that agency, are currently investigating his alleged lack of care.) And the Savage-Rumbaugh program with Kanzi and others is in free-fall.

I asked Bob to call on his experience in the research programs and his passion for primate welfare, to help me understand benefits of the ape language studies.

“No easy answer here, since in hindsight I would say that far more damage was done than can be justified by any perceived benefits that humans got from this, now,” Bob explained. “It was very exciting at the time to even think that chimpanzees could actually ‘talk.’”

Bob recalled the feeling of “getting hooked” on the excitement of being involved in what was a very hot topic in behavioral science. Before the 1970s ended, however, most in the academic and research worlds began changing their approaches to the use of apes.

“It was about that time that I started to question the language experiments,” Bob said. “What the hell are the benefits of all this? That question ran through my head pretty much every day, since the chimps I worked with, who by then were my friends, lived in cages. That bothered me a lot. It bothered many of us students by that time.”

Bob acknowledges that some benefits may have come from the research. For instance, Roger Fouts, who received plaudits for the use of sign language with chimpanzee Washoe, was a pioneer in using the same techniques and methods to teach sign language to children with autism. “However, sign language probably would have been used by someone within the autistic community at some point,” Ingersoll pointed out.

“The long-term damage done to the chimps involved in language studies now seems too great a sacrifice,” Bob declared. “If I could go back and stop it somehow, I would, but that is not possible.”

“What goes on now in Iowa, and in Washington at CHCI, is not appropriate, and those chimps need to be moved to a proper sanctuary. I'm certain that those animals would all be better served at other facilities. Chimps need to live with other chimps, in large groups, if possible, without human intervention, or very little whenever possible.”

“The situation in Iowa is tragic,” he says. “The Great Ape Trust and CHCI are much more like a circus and entertainment than a sanctuary for those animals, and the research is pretty suspect. I mean, Chimposium? And charging people? And usually it's the general public that attends these ‘training sessions.’ That is no different than renting a chimp for your kid's birthday, or a chimp on a TV show. It's charging to hang out with chimps, which is to me wrong.”

“Nothing personal against those folks, because I am certain that they do love those chimps and really want the best for them, and many of them are friends of mine, but they are also employed by this. And that is a conflict that has played itself out in this over and over. What is best for the chimps may not be best for the humans involved in their lives. The chimps do not get to choose, and that is too bad. If they did, they would choose to be with more chimps, I am certain.”

“This makes me think of Nim and what could have been. It is all so very sad.”

When Nim was kept in his cage, after years of growing up in relative freedom as a pseudo-human research subject, he would sign to his keepers. “Key Out Now.”

“That phrase is a continual reminder from Nim,” Bob laments. “Let's get apes out of bad situations, now.”

The last remaining vestiges of the language research studies are going badly. Legitimate funding is drying up (although I have heard that Savage-Rumbaugh is shaking the trees in Hollywood, trying to find a celebrity who could benefit from being pictured with little Teco) and prestigious academic leaders, at least those who want to protect their reputations, are bailing.

Key Out Now.

Keep up-to-date on developments at Bonobo Hope.
For more on the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, see More chimpanzees to enter 40-year-old language research program.

1 comment:

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