Signifying apes upstage Freedom Tour

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1999:

ATLANTA––One could say the Georgia State University bonobo Panbanisha, 14, and the Zoo Atlanta orangutan Chantek, 20, made a monkey’s uncle of former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan during the last week in July––but Sullivan really did it to himself. Though Sullivan suggested that their kind should be vivisected, Panbanisha and Chantek meant him neither harm nor embarrassment.

Sullivan, now president of the Morehouse School of Medicine and a board member of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, tried to play the race card against the July 24-27 Primate Freedom Tour stop at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, on the Emory University campus.

In a guest column published in the July 26 edition of the Atlanta Constitution, Sullivan called it “disturbing that animal rights advocates liken their cause to the civil rights struggle in the 1960s and have adopted the Freedom Riders’ model for their Primate Freedom Tour. To claim, as they do,” Sullivan fulminated, “that their efforts are on the same moral plane as the struggle to end segregation borders on insult. Moreover, their assertion that primates and African-Americans share equal rights carries ugly overtones.”

Actually, the Primate Freedom Tour argues that great apes and all humans should logically hold equal rights to life and freedom from misery, but Sullivan didn’t let the facts interfere with his story.

Neither did he seem aware that the signifying apes Panbanisha and Chantek had just completely upstaged the Primate Freedom Tour and made headlines all over the world by demonstrating for reporters two days earlier that they could talk fluently, spontaneously, meaningfully and grammatically with the aid of computerized voice synthesizers; had mastered the use of symbological keyboards with as many as 400 keys instead of the usual 105; and in Panbanisha’s case, can write with chalk.

The two apes also understand the concept of performing tasks to earn money, which they then may use to buy toys or treats.

Panbanisha now has a spoken vocabulary of about 250 words and understands as many as 3,000 words, according to University of Georgia language researcher Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Panbanisha’s one-year-old son Nyota is already learning words from both Panbanisha and his father, Kanzi, the bonobo who inspired Savage-Rumbaugh’s book Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind.

Chantek speaks and understands about twothirds as many words as Panbanisha––equal to the linguistic skill of an average three-or-four-year-old child, and about 10 times the level achieved by Alex the African grey parrot, the most linguistically skilled bird of tested ability.

Many apes have demonstrated apparent verbal abilities before, but their skills have been denied by critics of the methods used to test them. Notably, the chimpanzees Washoe and Nim Chimpsky and the lowland gorilla Koko appeared to have learned American sign language during the 1960s and 1970s. That line of research fell out of favor, however, when Columbia University primate cognition laboratory chief Herbert Terrace argued that they were only making random hand motions.

Nim Chimpsky was retired to the Black Beauty Ranch sanctuary, operated by the Fund for Animals. The fate of his brother, who reportedly also learned American sign language, has never been discovered. Washoe, Koko, and their families are still with language researchers Roger Fouts and Francine Patterson, respectively, and have reportedly taught sign language to other great apes.

Koko, says Patterson, has a signing vocabulary of about 1,000 words, understands another 1,000, and has a tested I.Q. in the 75-90 range.

The voice synthesizer eliminates the “random hand motions” argument, as hitting random keys on a synthesizer would produce mere noise.

“All nations are human nations,” SavageRumbaugh reminded reporters who inquired as to what the apes’ communication breakthroughs might mean in terms of animal rights. “It’s a real threat if another species has a language, and is not just mumbling or screeching ‘eat, eat, kill, kill.’”

Commented Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer, whose 1974 book Animal Liberation sparked the modern animal rights movement, and who founded the Great Ape Project to seek great ape rights in 1993, “The end of the debate over apes’ use of language has come at a crucial time in the separate but related debate over the ethical status of our closest relatives––who in law may still be bought and sold and even killed at the absolute discretion of the owner,” like slaves when dark-skinned humans were said by light-skinned humans to be mentally inferior.

The debate over primate intelligence may now shift to more serious study of the cognition of monkeys––rarely doubted in Asia. Police in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for example, on July 4 seized two spider monkeys who were used to sell illegal narcotics. Taken to the National Zoo, the monkeys had reportedly learned to count money by recognizing the colors of bills, and to retrieve drugs from hiding places when buyers paid them the correct amount.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the Primate Freedom Tour for Sullivan, as a defender of invasive experiments on primates, is that it suggests in light of the growing evidence of great apes’ high intelligence that many researchers’ work might fairly be compared to the cruelties of slavemasters.

As Singer’s late friend Henry Spira observed, as a Freedom Rider who later fought against animal suffering, no oppressed person is demeaned by recognizing the suffering of others; but causing suffering always demeans those who do it.

The Primate Freedom Tour entourage has often more resembled Bingo Long’s Traveling AllStars and Motor Kings than the intensely self-disciplined Freedom Riders who carried out lunch counter desegregation and voter registration drives. Like Bingo Long’s baseball team, the Primate Freedom Tour has no one famous aboard, lots of eccentrics, and mismatched uniforms––and every now and then they’ve been stranded because the bus broke down.

But the tour has generated more reportage and public discussion about primate research than anything else since the Animal Welfare Act was amended in 1985 to require labs to provide mental stimulation for nonhuman primate research subjects.

The Primate Freedom Tour concludes with protests at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, August 31-September 4. For details, telephone 888-391-8948; e-mail >><<; or check the web site >><<.

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