Students are talking to animals

November 10, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

This chimpanzee was among those in the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University that talked using American Sign Language with Issaquah High School students. Courtesy Central Washington University

This chimpanzee was among those in the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University that talked using American Sign Language with Issaquah High School students. Courtesy Central Washington University

Issaquah High School students can talk to animals.
While they aren’t talking to horses and birds yet, like Dr. Doolittle, they have spoken to chimpanzees.

On Oct. 10, 43 Issaquah students had the opportunity to put their high school American Sign Language lessons to new use at the Central Washington University’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute project.

“I wanted them to see that sign isn’t just for humans and it’s not just for fun,” said ASL teacher Elizabeth Short. “It can be used every day for research and as a way to communicate with others. For the kids, this was a chance to see that real-life application.”

“It was so exciting,” junior Hanna Dingwall said. “We could say ‘hi’ and they would sign back.”

The mission of the program, in operation since 1980, is to conduct quality, humane research that investigates the communication and behavior of three chimpanzees in the program. The program has taught the chimpanzees to communicate with each other and humans with sign language.

“We learned how the project helped break the communication barrier,” junior Teresa Micheletti said. “It was something that never really happened before with animals.”

The three chimpanzees in the program today are Loulis, Tatu and Dar. Elementary, secondary school, college students and the general public are allowed to come visit the program and watch the chimpanzees.

The students traveled to Eastern Washington to spend the entire day with them, learning how communication occurs between them, their handlers and the visitors.

“It was kind of shocking when we first saw them sign,” senior Mitchell Tant said. “I never would have thought that animals could communicate in that way and actually comprehend. It brings a whole other intellectual side to them.”

“At one point, one of the chimpanzees tricked the human,” Short said. “He made the human go to the door, then ran to the other and laughed at him.”

“It feels different when you look at a chimpanzee that can communicate, then look at one in a zoo. It really gives you a different perspective,” Tant said.

The program also provides a sanctuary for the chimps to live, and strives to promote better understanding about apes and further education efforts for their protection in captivity and in the wild.

Another program goal is to encourage respect, responsibility and compassion for apes by offering unique, engaging educational programs and resources to elementary, secondary and post-secondary students, and the public at large.

Sign language is a “fascinating language without using your voice,” Micheletti said. “We can use it right now in our lives, too. I’m in theater, so I can use it at rehearsals.”

“I learned the alphabet in fourth grade and ever since I’ve wanted to learn the language,” senior Carson Powers said. “Seeing the chimpanzee project has made me think I’d like to go further with it, like interpreting or taking additional college classes.”

“I really feel like they walked away seeing sign language in a whole new way and a chance to see how it is used, with not only the human deaf or hearing-impaired world, but also with the animal world,” Short said.

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

Bookmark and Share

Comments

Got something to say?

Before you comment, please note:

  • These comments are moderated.
  • Comments should be relevant to the topic at hand and contribute to its discussion.
  • Personal attacks and/or excessive profanity will not be tolerated and such comments will not be approved.
  • This is not your personal chat room or forum, so please stay on topic.