On May 7, 1993, chimpanzee Washoe (1965-2007) and her family members, Loulis, Moja, Dar, and Tatu, move into the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, their newly constructed home at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. Washoe is the first chimpanzee to communicate using American Sign Language and the first to pass the ability to sign on to another chimpanzee, her adopted son Loulis. The new 7,000-square-foot home with a three-story exercise and climbing area provides behavioral psychologists Roger and Deborah Fouts and their students with the opportunity to conduct noninvasive observational research and the chimpanzees with a home that more closely mimics their natural environment.
Roger Fouts met Washoe in 1967 at the University of Nevada in Reno when he was hired as a part-time research assistant to Drs. R. Allen Gardner and Beatrix Gardner, who were teaching the infant chimpanzee to use American Sign Language. The Gardners' experiment was given the name Project Washoe. In 1971, after Roger Fouts had completed his doctorate, he, his wife Deborah, and Washoe moved to the Institute for Primate Research in Norman, Oklahoma. In 1980 Roger Fouts, Deborah Fouts (an experimental psychologist), their three children, Washoe, Washoe's adopted son Loulis, and another chimpanzee from the Gardner's signing study named Moja moved to Ellensburg where Fouts joined the faculty at Central Washington University. Washoe, Loulis, Moja, and later Moja's foster siblings Dar and Tatu, were housed in a four-room, 3,600-square-foot primate laboratory in the University's psychology building.
Attracting Fouts and Washoe was a coup for Central. Fouts described Washoe's unique role in the history of chimpanzee-human relations by saying "She's broken down the species barrier" ("Chimps Have Their Say"). Fouts chose Central over prestigious institutions like Yale because at Central he would not be required to use the chimpanzees for biomedical research.
Central's existing research facility was adequate but not ideal. The five chimpanzees were confined to a relatively small space and had no room to move freely. Worst of all, the rooms were on the third floor, preventing the chimpanzees' access to the outdoors. The psychology building had structural problems that resulted in leaking water, and lacked adequate noise control. The groundbreaking chimpanzee-human communications work the Foutses and their research assistants were doing with the animals was inaccessible to the public because the laboratory lacked any facilities to accommodate public visitors. In 1981 Roger and Deborah Fouts founded Friends of Washoe to fund their research into how chimpanzees acquire language and, subsequently, to raise money for a better home for the chimpanzees in Washoe's family.
Designing, Funding, and Building
In 1985 the Foutses began designing this new facility. In his book, Next of Kin, Roger Fouts remembered that the goal of the design process was to "create an environment that functions like a forest from the chimpanzee's point of view" (p. 339).
By the late 1980s, the designs were complete and the proposed 1990 Washington state construction budget of both chambers of the legislature contained requests for $1.5 million to fund a new home for the chimpanzees at Central. Senator Frank "TUB" Hansen (D-Moses Lake), was a particular advocate. Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936) and Central Washington University president Dr. Donald Garrity were also vocal supporters of the proposed facility, as was University trustee Ron Dotzauer.
The Foutses enlisted Jane Goodall to help lobby the legislature for funding approval. Goodall, the Foutses' longtime friend, is internationally known for her field research and important contributions to the understanding of chimpanzee society. On April 24, 1989, Goodall addressed both chambers of the Washington state legislature, expressing her support for a new home for the chimpanzees at Central. Goodall told the members of the Washington State House:
"The unique opportunity to study Washoe and the other four chimps that Roger and Debbi have created is enabling us to learn so much more about the chimpanzee's mind. And having spent the hours that I've spent in the wild and seen the chimpanzees making nests, climbing trees and traveling freely over an area of 12 square kilometers -- it is quite obvious that this incredibly unique group of chimps needs and deserves a better facility than they have now. And it's equally clear to me from traveling around the world speaking across the nation and in Europe and in Japan that once this facility has been built here in Washington state, there will be tremendous international recognition of the facility and the work which Roger and Debbi have been doing so dedicatedly for so many years. It will present a unique educational opportunity for children, for students, and for the layman, for everyone. It will bring credit to the state, it will bring credit to the University, and it will bring added recognition to the amazing chimpanzee beings who for so long people have really not understood at all" (Jane Goodall, Address to State of Washington, House of Representatives).
Following Dr. Goodall's remarks, the funding was approved. The state of Washington ultimately funded approximately 90 percent of the $2.3 million needed to build the new facility, some through the University budget. Friends of Washoe raised the balance through individual donations.
Construction of the new facility began in the spring of 1990, but the Foutses and other supporters continued to raise money to fund an outdoor habitat area for the chimps as well as a visitor's center. Actress Doris Day contributed $5,000. The Kittitas County Board of Commissioners awarded the facility a $500 grant. Some of the art produced by the chimpanzees as part of their enrichment activity was auctioned and further money was raised at a Friends of Washoe gala held in Seattle in January 1990. Washington Governor Booth Gardner and his wife Jean Gardner served as co-chairs of a fundraising effort to build a facility for students, educators, and other visitors to observe the chimpanzees at the new facility with minimal disturbance to the chimpanzees.
In his memoir, Next of Kin, Roger Fouts describes the facility as "a research environment based on mutual respect between chimpanzees and humans" (p. 289). Fouts told the Ellensburg Daily Record, "We see the research and the chimp family as a state and national and, really, international resource. Our research is not only having an impact on education at CWU and elsewhere, but is being applied to children with communications disorders -- the deaf, the autistic, and the mentally handicapped. We are seeking to expand and enlarge the circle of public involvement" (January 15, 1990).
Chimps' New Home
When the facility was ready the chimpanzees were prepared for their move by viewing a video of Roger and Deborah Fouts giving them a special signed tour of the new facility.
On the night of May 6, 1993, the chimpanzees were tranquilized and moved to their new home. They awoke and recognized the facility they had seen on the video. The environment was enriched with cargo nets, a cave, telephone poles that functioned like trees with suspended platforms for branches, fire hoses that the chimpanzees could use like vines, and a treat mound where human helpers hid food that the chimpanzees could forage for. Outdoor exercise areas featured climbing structures, more fire hoses, and tractor tires. Human helpers prepared the chimpanzees' meals in a glass-walled kitchen.
By 2006, Project Washoe was the longest ongoing study of ape language in history. Human helpers entered the chimpanzees' environment, when the chimpanzees were not present, to clean and make repairs. Researchers studied Washoe's family from outside the environment through glass and wire fences and via video cameras. As the Foutses and their supporters planned, members of the public could visit and learn about the chimpanzees at weekend "chimposiums," but according to Roger Fouts, life at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute "follows a single principle: chimpanzee needs come first, human education comes second" (Next of Kin, 341).
End of the Institute
Washoe died in Ellensburg on October 30, 2007. Her November 1, 2007, obituary in The New York Times reported that Mary Lee Jensvold, assistant director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, said that Washoe "died in bed at age 42, surrounded by staff members and other primates who had been close to her" (p. A-13).
Roger and Deborah Fouts retired from Central Washington in 2011, after three decades at the school and more than 40 years working with Washoe and her family. Moja had died in 2002 and Dar died in 2012 (both, like Washoe, of natural causes), so only two chimpanzees, Tatu and Loulis, remained at the institute. In 2013 Friends of Washoe "decided it would be in [their] best interests to move them to a sanctuary that afforded them with more opportunities for social interactions with other chimpanzees" ("CWU Chimpanzees Arrive ...").That September Tatu and Loulis were transferred to a chimpanzee sanctuary in Quebec, Canada, where they would live with 11 other chimpanzees.
The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute was closed, and its building served briefly as the Central Washington University Athletic Annex. In April 2018 the elaborate facility built for the chimpanzees 25 years earlier was demolished to make way for a planned new dormitory and dining facility on the fast-growing Central Washington campus.