Thursday, March 22, 2012

Of Signing Chimps, Water Ouzels, and 10,000+ Bottle Caps

Washoe, from Wikipedia.
Yesterday I was up well before night gave way to the dark gray of a Seattle March morning to catch a tour bus to Ellensburg to enjoy a Christmas gift from my brother and mother: attendance at a Chimposium held at Central Washington University.

Chimposium is an opportunity to learn about and visit the famous chimpanzees who learned to communicate in American Sign Language in experiments that started in the 1960s. I was fortunate enough to attend a Chimposium in the early 1990s, when the matriarch of the five-chimp troop, Washoe, was still alive; she was the first non-human animal to communicate in ASL.

Today, just three chimps remain, one of them being Loulis, who was raised by Washoe and learned ASL from her. It's a fascinating place and project, the story of which is well told on the facility's website here.

The two male chimps greeted us with a show of territorial superiority--swinging from ropes, rampaging around the room, spinning, bouncing off the walls, and the like. The female, Tatu, banged on the window and then retreated to a corner to watch us with interest. She's fond of traditional "girly" stuff, and I saw her sign "lipstick" as she gazed at the crowd, which consisted largely of women of retirement age wearing one of Tatu's favorite cosmetics. (The CWU staff reports that Tatu likes black lipstick best.)

The hour spent at Chimposium was bracketed by other sightings, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Starting with the sublime: the beauty of the Cascades in winter, viewed from the comfort of a tour bus while it's being chained up to go over the pass. (OK, mixed with a little ridiculousness, as "Yanni" played on the bus's loudspeakers.)

The air was very still; the deciduous trees covered in snow made it look like the woods existed in both positive and negative formats.

I caught a glimpse of a small, chunky bird called the American Dipper just before the bus pulled out to resume our trip east, perched on a stone in the steam. The Dipper is also known by the far more wonderful name of Water Ouzel and is a remarkable creature: It hunts for food underwater, clinging to the substrate with its claws and walking about pecking up insects and larvae. It can also use its short, strong wings as flippers and stay underwater for 30 seconds at a time. Pretty cool.

I also caught a quick glimpse of a group of swans majestically gliding across a mountain pond. We whooshed by too quickly for me to check to see if they had a tiny spot of color at the base of their bills or not, which would tip me off as to whether they were Tundra or Trumpeter swans (I know, I'm a rubbish birder, forgive me), but the Tundra Swan appears to be more common and thus the more likely species.

The chimpanzees were sublime, too. It wasn't until we entered Ellensburg for lunch that the ridiculous began, in a delightful way.

Like finding out that we'd be eating at--where else?--a place called Rodeo City BBQ. Where signs warn you "Do Not Lean Back in Chair." You old cowpoke, you--mind yer manners.

And whereas most grocery stores are keen to hide the fact that vermin and insects might be lurking amongst their wares, or might choose to advertise sales on salmon, arugula, quinoa, melons, and the like if they are Seattle grocery stores, the market in Ellensburg takes a different approach:

After lunch (which consisted of decent barbecue and no bargain-priced maggots), I stepped out to visit another local attraction, a wonderland of fences and poles spackled with bicycle reflectors and bottle caps and bristling with nails, populated by everything from creepy mannequin heads to impaled teddy bears. This version of "It's a Small World" was Dick and Jane's Spot.

More than 10,000 bottle caps, two thousand bicycle reflectors, and hundreds of glass insulators and other odds and ends transform a once-humble house into a year-round festival.

Over at Chimposium, volunteers stress their efforts at "enrichment," activities and novelties for the chimps that get them thinking and help relieve the monotony of captivity; the artists who created this house are aces at enriching their own lives and those of passersby.

After pondering what I could do with all those spice jars, bread-bag plastic-tab thingies, toy unicorns, and other items cluttering up our house given enough time and a loaded hot-glue gun, I strolled up the main street in town and gravitated toward this inviting sign:

 Whew! Talk about enrichment! I'd just hit the jackpot. This was going to be fun. But no; alas, Bailey's Bibliomania had just closed down on March 11, for good, and indeed the books were being carted out of the store and onto a truck as I watched. Oh well.

But...wait a second. Here were shelves of free books. Not much on offer...outdated textbooks, water-damaged romance novels, pamphlets...and then, serendipity: the perfect, absolutely ghastly book to find when on a field trip to visit chimpanzees at an institute where the animals are treated with respect and the utmost in courtesy:

A Honey of a Chimp, according to a 1980 Kirkus review, is "a classic example of the children's book as synthetic commodity."  The back-cover copy explains that little Emily wants a pet "more than anything in the world," but her dad's allergic to cats, Mom doesn't like dogs, and hamsters and fish are "too boring" while snakes proved unpopular with everyone but Emily.

So, of course, the family procures a chimpanzee. Hilarity ensues.

The chimp grows up, naturally, and Emily learns a lesson that all chimp-owning adolescents eventually learn, namely that "even perfect things can't last forever." Hopefully this does not refer to Emily's perfect face, given what damage can be inflicted by an angry chimpanzee.

My family, of course, knew better than to get me a chimpanzee even though Mom was allergic to cats and didn't like dogs. I got a camel, a capybara, and a right whale. That's just the way it was, kids, back in the '80s.


  1. You might be interested in the research going on with the gelada monkey melodies -
    (disclaimer - I have no connection to either or the research, other than I think it's cool)

  2. Thanks! I will check it out. Just the mixture of "gelada monkey" and "melodies" right away signifies that it is bound to be fascinating. It's astonishing how much we're finding out about our fellow travelers on this much that was there all along and we didn't know (or denied). Birdsong studies are amazing too.