We’re All Chimps: Or Are Animals Persons Too? | Roger and Deborah Fouts

In Western civilization, human beings are considered the exceptional species and uniquely intelligent. Yet science is consistently revealing our intimate biological kinship with all species, especially the primates with whom we share 99% of our DNA. The breakthrough primatologist researchers Roger and Deborah Fouts take us on their amazing journey with chimpanzees that shows that, not only are people animals, but animals seem to be people too.


Roger and Deborah Fouts co-founded and directed the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) at Central Washington University. CHCI facilitated research on primate communication, advocated for chimpanzee conservation, and served as a sanctuary for chimpanzees from 1993-2013.


  • Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
  • Written by: Kenny Ausubel
  • Senior Producer & Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
  • Host & Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
  • Program Engineer: Emily Harris
  • Production Assistance: Tena Rubio & Melanie Choy
  • Interview Recording Engineer: Emily Harris

This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.

Music co-written by the Baka Forest People of Cameroon and Baka Beyond from the album East to West. All royalties from Baka compositions and performances go to Baka Forest People, through the charity Global Music Exchange. Find out more at globalmusicexchange.org.

Additional music was made available by Sounds True, at SoundsTrue.com.

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NEIL HARVEY, HOST: In Western civilization, we as human beings have long celebrated ourselves as exceptional and uniquely intelligent – the pinnacle of evolution itself. But what if we’re not nearly so unique as we’ve liked to believe? 

And just how intelligent is a species that destroys its one and only habitat? 

Today, science is increasingly revealing that in truth we’re nearly identical biologically to many other animals. We share about 50% of our DNA with algae, for instance. But most impressive are our next of kin – primates, with whom we share more than 98 of our DNA. We’re more chimp than anything else. Yes, you might say we’re all chimps. 

That’s exactly what breakthrough primatologist researchers Roger and Deborah Fouts say. In this half-hour, we share their astonishing journey into the heart of nature and the human heart.

This is “We’re All Chimps: Or Are Animals Persons Too?” with Deborah and Roger Fouts, co-founders of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. 

My name is Neil Harvey. I’ll be your host. Welcome to the Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature.

ROGER FOUTS: Way across the yard I saw this little—it looked like a little, you know, a child in diapers. And then she started quadrupedally running toward us. And it was Washoe. And she was running along. She jumped over the fence and into my arms. [LAUGHTER] And gave me a hug. [LAUGHTER] And I don’t think anyone needed a hug more than me that day. [LAUGHTER]

HOST: Roger Fouts had just had the job interview from hell. As a Ph.d student in psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno in 1966, he needed a research assistantship to help offset tuition costs and provide him some income for his young human family. 

He interviewed with Dr. Allen Gardner, an experimental psychologist, who, during the interview, roundly criticized Fouts for celebrating the work of scholars whom Gardner did not respect, resulting in Gardner more-or-less declaring Fouts unfit for the job. 

As a consolation for having traveled so far for a failed interview, Gardner offered to introduce the crestfallen Fouts to his latest research project, which was designed to see if chimpanzees were capable of learning language.

When Washoe vaulted the fence into Roger’s arms, she got him the job. 

Roger’s wife Debbi joined the research project, and gradually they worked with four more chimpanzees: Moja, Loulis, Tatu, and Dar.

All of the chimps were raised as though they were deaf human children, immersed in sign language. Other researchers had only studied their vocalization. Half a world away, Dr. Jane Goodall was conducting parallel research at the Gombe Reserve that also sought to meet the animals on their own terms.

Roger and Debbi Fouts spoke at a Bioneers conference.

RF: There was a chimp at Gombe that when Goodall was provisioning, he’d see the bananas, well, he’d lead the other chimps off, he’d come back alone, she would unlock the box, he’d see the bananas, and he’d go [CHIMP NOISES]. And then all the chimps within hearing distance converged. The third time he led them away and came back alone, he actually covered his mouth [LAUGHTER] but it still came out, you know. [LAUGHTER] It’s sort of elicited. So, not all of them but a lot of their vocalizations are like ours. When somebody steps on your toe, you don’t say, my goodness, that hurts a great deal; I better let them know by, you know, screaming. It just comes out. Why focus on vocal speech when they can voluntarily move their hands?

Somebody finally decides, well, let’s look at gestures. And what he looked at was Gombe Stream chimps where, you know, Jane studies, and then he went to where Nishida studied, which was about 100 kilometers away. And in Gombe Stream when a chimp wants to be groomed by another chimp, they raise one hand. In Mahale, they raised or used two hands. What we’ve now discovered is you actually have gestural dialects between different communities of chimpanzees.

They have gestures like when mom’s ready to go, there’s this, you know, climb on my back. Well, also males will use that. It’s time to get outta here. Let’s split.

HOST: Project Washoe and the research projects that followed went beyond the gestures chimpanzees already used and tried to teach them American Sign Language. Within four years, Washoe developed an extensive vocabulary of about 130 signs. Then she learned to ask questions and to use signs in combination. Be careful what you wish for!

When Debbi Fouts set up a video camera and left the room to observe the chimpanzees remotely, she got some feedback she wasn’t quite prepared for.

Roger and Debbi Fouts

DEBORAH FOUTS: So the chimpanzees would see the cameras being set up, and then I would go back to the video room and watch what they were doing. And Washoe really didn’t care for this study because it meant that all of her human friends had to be out of her area for 20 minutes, you know, three times a day.

And she would come up to the camera and say — She named me Debbi Flower. She would say, “Debbi, dirty”, which is like feces, Debbi. [LAUGHTER] She would curse at me. [LAUGHTER] Somehow she knew that I was back watching, we’ll never know.

RF: The chimps, they didn’t acquire all the signs from us, but they would also come up with metaphors, like Lucy—watermelon, she called it candy drink. Radish, she’d call it cry-hurt food. [LAUGHTER] And Washoe, when she was very young — We learned our sign language mainly from textbooks and older teachers, and so for her bib, we used wiper. Anything that you might wipe a young chimpanzee’s mouth with. And one day rather than saying give me bib to start a meal, she said give me, and she made an outline on her chest. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] Okay? So, for the next several months, every time she would say, Give me using her sign, we’d have to say, no, that’s wrong, it’s a wiper [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] until we finally convinced her that she should use this instead of the— And then ironically, at the Berkeley School for the Deaf, and somebody raised—said, Oh, didn’t you know, that is the sign for bib. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS]

HOST: Roger’s original plan as a clinical psychologist had been to work with children, and now he was – just not the species he envisioned.

DF: So Tatu was younger than Washoe, and Dar. She was the timekeeper. We, of course, would have a Thanksgiving meal with the chimpanzees. So we had turkey, which Tatu called um, “bird meat”. So right after bird meat day, Tatu would start asking for sweet tree. And the sweet tree came because the family and the student family would make edible ornaments, you know, strings of popcorn and cranberries and cereal. And so right after Thanksgiving, she would start asking for, “time sweet tree?” [LAUGHTER] We’d be like, No, no, no, no, we need to wait for the sweet tree. [LAUGHTER]

She also was—Dar and I had birthdays a day apart. I’m August 1st and Dar was August 2nd. And so we always had ice cream on Dar’s birthday because he just loved ice cream. And so I would have my birthday and we would share ice cream and some treats for my birthday, and we’d all sign happy birthday to me. And then Tatu the next day, when we would come in, would be like, ice cream? Dar? Ice cream? It was like, Yes. And she was our timekeeper, more so than any of the other chimps.

HOST: Together, Roger and Debbi Fouts published more than 100 articles in scientific journals and books about their work with Washoe and other chimpanzees. Their research radically challenged the conventional scientific paradigm, which ascribed this kind of intelligence – and, yes, humanity – only to human beings. It didn’t go over very well.

DF: We were at a conference in Mexico and we saw one of the major people in the research community who kept saying it was all imitation. And we said, ‘Oh, we’ve got the videotapes of the chimpanzees signing.’ And he goes, ‘I have to go to dinner.’ So it was easier not to see it, because then you have to change everything. And, you know, people want to believe what they believe, and it’s very difficult to change that mind.

RF: Yeah. They say that scientific thought and so on often changes one funeral at a time. Some of these people, they’re not, I would say, almost ethical enough to go back and say, I was wrong, or their ego won’t allow them to say that I made a mistake; this is incorrect because there’s hard data showing that what I said wasn’t the case.

HOST: The scientific community dismissed their work as having committed the worst possible scientific sin: it was not objective. After all, the researchers were treating the animals as persons, and learning to relate to them on their own terms. The Fouts became pariahs.

RF: They want you to leave both your mind and your heart behind, and to only look at it in a rational,  non-emotional way. In other words, it is asking you to be something other than human because we aren’t machines, emotions are a part of our biology, our nervous system and our gut, if you will, just as much as our brain is. And so it wants us to dissociate from being a unitary being into a bifurcated—this dichotomy. And that’s been in science for a long time. It gets back to Descartes.

Descartes is viewed as the father of both subjective and objective psychology. He dichotomized the human into a rational mind and a machine, an automata. He once said that a dog that yelps when it’s kicked suffers no more than a bell that rings when it’s struck.

This objective psychology sort of fits into experimental psychology and science in general where they want you to be objective. And so, what Project Washoe did, we had both the objective side. Alan Gardener was very objective. Beatrice Gardener was an ethologist. What you do with ethology is you are humble enough to observe animal behavior of any sort, humans, we’re—of course we’re animals too, it—to observe behavior and let the organism tell you what’s important to them. We had Washoe on her terms as a chimpanzee, so it adjusted to her rather than expecting her to adjust to what we humans might want.

Also, the Gardeners’ reason that if Washoe was going to learn this language, if she was going to learn to talk, she would have to have good friends to talk to. And so rather than treating her like a white rat in a maze, they immersed her in an environment of sign language with basically a human family around her. That’s very different than the Cartesian of being objective, only do the numbers, don’t get emotionally tied to them, and so on

I mean, if you treated a child that way, if you hid your emotions or kept objective, imagine what that child might be like if you raised them by never showing any love, never showing any warmth—basically treating them like a machine. It would be a terrible, terrible thing to do. In fact, I bet you could probably get arrested for child abuse.

HOST: Roger and Deborah found that Washoe was anything but a machine. In fact, she was the archetypal caring mother figure. She doted on Loulis and pretty much watched out for everyone, including the Fouts’ human son Josh. Her own baby had died and she passionately adopted Loulis.

DF: his mother had rejected him. She had bolts in her head from implantation research, and so he was 10 months old. He came home to Washoe on Josh’s 12th birthday, and you took Loulis out to Washoe. And before you handed him to her, you said,

RF: I said, I have a baby. And she got up and she—Baby! Hug! Hug! Love! Baby! Baby! She was just hooting. She was so excited. And then I walked in at Loulis and she saw him, and the arousal just went down, and she set down, and she signed very calmly, Baby. It was a baby but it wasn’t her baby.

HOST: One experience that Roger had with Washoe showed him that chimpanzees could also be altruistic. It contradicted the Cartesian view, especially the commonly held tenet of scientific rationalism that living things are primarily “gene machines”, unconsciously calculating their selfish actions based on whether it improves the likelihood of surviving and passing on their genes.

RF: When we first moved to Oklahoma, and she was about 6 or so, they put her on an island. It was a moted island, an artificial mote, maybe eight feet deep, and because chimps don’t swim — they don’t have the buoyancy that we do — and so they put an electric fence, it was about two feet high. It had two strands of electric wire. And it went all the way around the island.

Well, this chimp had just arrived, he was brand new. And the people there put him on the island, and of course he was terrified of the other chimps. They didn’t know him, and he panicked and he jumped over the fence and into the mote. And he went down. And he started to come up again, and he went down. And Washoe jumped over the fence, and there was maybe six inches, and she landed on that, and she reached down and grabbed the base of one of the poles holding the electric wires, and she got into the wires and reached into the water and pulled this chimp out that she did not know. As I said, was brand new, so she really literally saved his life and risked her own, because she did not like water. She wasn’t wanting to even—really want to wade much at all.

But, I mean, to see that risking her life to save somebody, a stranger, if you will, it is remarkable. But I think that speaks to her. She always cared about looking out for, for people in trouble.

HOST: When we return, more with Roger and Debbi Fouts on how the scientific paradigm is changing today – and why they are modern-day abolitionists…

This is “We’re All Chimps: Or Are Animals Persons Too?”. I’m Neil Harvey. You are listening to The Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature.

HOST: For Roger and Deborah Fouts, their family extended to the chimpanzees they worked with. They were persons to them. 

In this era of rising animal rights consciousness and viral media, it’s easy to forget that until very recently – and in many places still – chimps have been rotuinely treated in ways that can best be described as abuse and even torture. 

Imagine how the Fouts felt when adopting a chimp whose mother still had bolts in her head from medical experiments and no longer knew how to be a mom. Or having the owners of the  facility in Oklahoma in which the chimps previously lived, force all the chimps to wear chains around their necks, and to live in 5×5 cages that were 7 feet high. Or glue a cap to a baboon’s head to allow a machine to spin him at high speed and stop suddenly to simulate a car accident. 

And when the institution “owns” the chimps, there’s nothing to stop them. After all, this is the legacy of Renee Descartes and the Enlightenment thinking that birthed our current scientific paradigm. From this perspective, animals are just machines, without feelings, creativity or certainly consciousness.  

After losing a federal grant in 1980 that supported the welfare of the chimps, Roger and Debbi Fouts felt compelled to choose jobs at smaller universities without PhD programs in order to preserve their autonomy and the safety of the chimps. They founded a nonprofit, Friends of Washoe to help assure their well being.

When the Fouts retired in 2009 they partnered with Dr. Marilee Jensvold and her Fauna Foundation in Canada, a sanctuary to care for several of the remaining chimps.

DF: When Washoe passed away, it was really, really terrible. Both of us have lost our parents, and so we, you know, we knew what grief was, but I think everyone in the family was terribly heartbroken when Washoe passed away. We were with Washoe and we knew the end was near, and so Marilee lived about 30 miles away, and we had called her. And we were holding Washoe in our laps. And when Marilee got there and she held her, then Washoe let go. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] And she passed.

RF: Yeah, she gave her a little greeting [INAUDIBLE] [CROSSTALK]

DF: She did. She lifted her head and did a—So she—It, you know, I mean, we hear about humans, the wait until the people are there to see them onto the other side, and truly that’s how Washoe [CROSSTALK] acted.

RF: (overlapping) – And it did affect the other chimps too, after she died. For about a week they were very—

DF: Very sad.

RF: Sad.

DF: Very somber. And poor Loulis, she was more than his mother, she was his everything.

RF: So, they are aware of grief. In the Thai forests, Bosch[?] observed something among wild chimpanzees. He was following a troop and he heard this leopard and that screaming and so on, and when he got there, there was a, I think a teenager that had been killed by the leopard. And the alpha male set by the body and the adults of that group of chimpanzees came by and would touch and so on, and move off. And he kept all the young ones, the 2 and 3 year olds, except for one, he let one young chimp—and it was the little brother of the juvenile that had been killed. But they spent the day with the body, basically having a wake. I mean, it’s what we would call it.

HOST: In the early 90s, the Fouts created The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University, a sanctuary dedicated to the protection of chimpanzees, and to better educating students and the public.

They were active in a successful campaign that urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to extend the endangered species designation to all chimpanzees, not only wild ones. This contributed to the National Institutes of Health’s landmark decision in 2015 to stop using chimpanzees in biomedical research, where researchers often abused the animals, performed experiments without anesthesia, and infected them with deadly viruses.

The Fouts advocate the end to all animal-testing. They want all captivity of animals who grew up living freely in the wild to be abolished.

DF: I am an abolitionist. I understand that for our human consumption, people do feel that cows and pigs and chickens should—I guess they have to live in captivity. I just don’t think any animals that are free living—lions, tigers, any of the zoo animals—they shouldn’t be in captivity. I don’t think we should keep breeding them in captivity, because that’s the big thing is zoos right now. ‘Well, they’re not in the wild anymore, so we’re really going to need to breed more.’ So, breeding them into prison to me seems—just doesn’t seem right.

RF: We should protect their habitat where they are. The money should go to the habitat.

DF: Right.

RF: As far as domestic animals, like pigs — we’ll eat meat now. We were vegetarian for years, and then I think we’ve sort of come to the realization that it’s all part of the Tao and we’re going to feed on life. But Niman, Niman Farms, the pigs get to be pigs, and they have one bad day. And most of us, well, we all will have one bad day. [LAUGHTER] So, do you see what I’m saying?

Factory farming is an abomination. If you’re going to take their life to survive, then you should have respect. It should be a sacred event rather than this aberrant abuse of them. [APPLAUSE] So whether it’s chickens in small cages.

And we are complete abolitionists. Chimpanzees belong—We’ve said in print that we would never, ever do a project like this. They can’t go home again. Those chimps that have been home reared and—in this country—it sounds romantic, but with Lucy, a chimp that we worked with in Oklahoma, it was not a happy ending. It would be like me taking a 12-year-old human child and dropping her in the Outback of Australia and saying, these are your roots, you know, just give me your earphones and your iPhone and survive. [LAUGHTER] And that’s what they did to Lucy. Lucy used to have martinis with the Temerlins. I mean, she was, you know. She was humanized basically to our culture, and to put her back in Africa was—I think was a big mistake.

But in individuals like that, what we did is give them the best life we could, and still are supporting them. We should have a reverence for the very thing that keeps us alive, you know, whether it’s a plant or an animal, they are all beings, they’re organic beings that we should appreciate the sacrifice that we’re forcing on them, quite literally, for us.

HOST: Here is how Roger Fouts summed it all up in his book Next of Kin:

“Washoe, the chimpanzee and friend for over 30 years, has taught me that we are both part of natural world we share with all our fellow animals. She has taught me that personhood is something we share, and that personhood goes beyond species classifications. She has taught me that human arrogance is very lethal to our fellow beings on this planet, especially when it is combined with human ignorance. She has taught me that the most profound scientific discoveries are often based on the most humble approach. She has taught me that compassion is one of our dearest traits and that we should value it above all others, including intelligence. She helped me to realize that if we humans do not embrace and respect our fellow species on this planet, then we stand a good chance of destroying the whole thing.”

After all, people are animals, and animals seem to be people too.

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