Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

Next of Kin

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

Washoe, a female chimpanzee born in the wild around 1964, was the first great ape to learn and use signs of American Sign Language (ASL). She was raised in a trailer in the back yard of experimental psychologist Allen Gardner in the late 1960s and was cared for by graduate students. One was Roger Fouts, now Professor of Psychology at Central Washington University and author of Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees.

The language capabilities of chimps are real. Washoe currently lives at Central Washington University with several other signing chimps in a large indoor/outdoor enclosure, where Fouts has extensively videotaped them using ASL among themselves. Although Next of Kin imparts significant information, in a straightforward and entertaining way, about the great apes, linguistics, and the evolution of language, the most affecting aspect of the book is the personal story of Fouts and Washoe.

In 1970, when Gardner transferred Washoe to the Institute for Primate Studies at the University of Oklahoma, Fouts went with her. The director of the Institute was clinical psychologist William Lemmon, a deposed department chairman who instructed his private patients to raise baby chimpanzees in their homes as "therapy." (Fouts went from house to house to teach ASL to these "cross-fostered" chimps.) Lemmon, who controlled about twenty primates, terrorized Institute chimps with Dobermans, random zaps with electric cattle prods, and punitive pellets from a hand-pump pellet gun. Eventually he sold all his chimps--signing or not--to biomedical research.

Fouts arranged a measure of independence from Lemmon, but he was occupied by foiling Lemmon's attempts to kill Washoe. ("At the time," Fouts writes, "it never occurred to me that Lemmon might consider me a threat.") Although Fouts continued meticulous research with signing chimps, he put his career aside to rescue Washoe; in 1980 he moved to obscure Central Washington University where he could create a sanctuary-like home for Washoe and several other chimp refugees from linguistic research.

Fouts's story personalizes the connection between linguistic research and biomedical research; the inhumane treatment of apes in linguistic research, which Fouts found to be similar throughout academia; and the savage treatment of apes in biomedical research. For example, chimpanzees in biomedical research are confined, often for decades, in cages so small that they cannot move. Primates in biomedical research are so physically and emotionally stressed through confinement, isolation, and abuse that the "test data" cannot possibly have any application to human medical treatment.

Fouts refers to chimpanzees as "non-human persons" on account of their evolutionary kinship, intellectual capacity, and emotional similarity to ourselves. He urges humane treatment and legal protection for the great apes. Next of Kin is an extraordinarily well-written combination of scientific information, research results in the astonishing field of talking animals, and a moving personal story.

Copyright © 2005 by Heidi Boudro