This Week on Bioneers Radio, “We’re All Chimps: Or Are Animals Persons Too?”

Today is the premiere of The Bioneers radio’s 16th season. Our first program features the remarkable story or primatologist researchers Roger and Deborah Fouts who raised chimpanzees as family. Joshua Fouts, their son, is the Executive Director of Bioneers. A few thoughts from Josh.

I hope you’ll enjoy listening to this opener to Season XVI of The Bioneers radio and podcast series; it’s one of the few stories I have heard that captures with delicate nuance the essence, sacrifice, heart, struggle and love that my parents poured into their 40-plus years with their chimpanzee siblings. Kenny Ausubel’s words, Stephanie Welch’s production and Neil Harvey’s voice tie it all together a lush and arresting Theater of the Mind.

I found myself overcome and a bit caught by surprise by the emotion that this story evoked in me. Such is the power of great storytelling.

For most of my life, people have asked me: “What was it like to grow up with chimps?” The answer is one that I’ve never been able to adequately respond to, other than to say that, like any child, what one experiences in their childhood is all they know to be “normal.” I didn’t know anything different.


My family’s normal was spent with an extended family of sign-language-speaking chimps. Our day-to-day normal included washing our clothes with chimp blankets, and spending our holidays with our chimp aunts and uncles (they were my parents’ sisters and brothers, thus our aunts and uncles). In practice, this often meant plucking long, bristly chimp hairs from my winter sweaters during high school (not the greatest pick-up line for a date), or getting up early each holiday to first spend it with the chimps and wait for them to open their presents or eat their “bird meat” (their sign language term for turkey) or “fruit tree” (the holiday conifer we decorated with edible treats), before concluding the holiday with my human family.  It also meant sharing their joys – exuberant hoots and signs for “hug!” every morning that my mom or dad would arrive to see them; and sorrows, when they lamented the loss or absence of a friend.

What I learned from a family that included chimps was a deep appreciation for how we as humans are loathe to open our hearts to the differences between “us” and whatever we consider to be “them.” Only as an adult have I come to appreciate the value of how vigilantly and presciently were my parents’ instructions to us as kids to consider chimps not other, but “us.” Not chimp, but family.

The symmetry and beauty of hearing this story told on the Bioneers radio series and to be part of an organization whose very mantra is “It’s all alive; It’s all connected; It’s all intelligent; It’s all relatives” is not lost on me.

Growing up in the sidecar of a chimpanzee’s destiny is something that I’ll probably be processing for the rest of my life. But I can tell you one thing: That sidecar lead me to you right here right now.

I’m no longer in the sidecar. Washoe, the matriarch of our chimp family, left us in 2007. And as she was freed of her mortal coil, so were we invited and challenged to live our lives more fully aware of the interconnectedness between us all.

In these times of tension and crisis in our world where the differences between us as humans seem starker than ever, Washoe’s story is one of healing and connection; a connection we all must strive to find.

I hope this insight into the importance of the interconnectedness of all beings in this story and the episodes to come rings as true to you as it did to me.

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