I had heard of Little Mama before I actually met her. Stories of the elderly little chimpanzee were frequent among those who worked with primates. She was, after all, one of the oldest chimpanzees in captivity. Still, nothing prepared me for the thrill of actually seeing her for the first time. Sitting in the middle of a large group of chimpanzees with a piece of burlap draped over her head and shoulders, Little Mama was unmistakable.
On my first day on the job at the animal park, I was given a pair of binoculars and a photo book of every chimpanzee with instructions to “learn who they are.” As I sat in the mud, I stared at Little Mama with fascination. I had no idea about where she had come from or her importance to the social fabric of this group of chimpanzees. What I was also unaware of was how every chimpanzee call I was hearing had been brought over by Little Mama from Africa over sixty years before. Little Mama would become the cornerstone of my own understanding of how chimpanzees communicate.
However, our exploration into the language of chimpanzees must begin decades before Little Mama’s birth. It must begin in the laboratories. Twenty years before her birth, scientists began a quest to discover the ability of apes to learn and understand human language. It was a quest that spanned a century and continues today, without success. It was a quest that attempted to transform the wild chimpanzee into a cultured, language-using human. It was a quest that existed in vain while, all along, in the forests of Africa, something far more amazing existed: a story of a little chimpanzee, born in the wild, who was about to be thrown into our world.
In a dimly lit hall on a spring evening, Dr. William Furness addressed the crowd gathered at the American Philosophical Society. Indeed, it must not have been the talk he had wanted to give. I can imagine the dour faces of his academic peers as he lectured. I can also imagine their skeptical looks centered on the subject matter of what the psychologist was saying. Dr. Furness was speaking about his attempts to teach two orangutans and two chimpanzees to speak.1
As he spoke about his firm belief that, if apes were taught correctly, they would be able to carry on a complete conversation with a human (in any language they were taught), he must have sensed the hostility in the room. Despite trying to focus on the successes of various cognitive tasks the apes were able to do, he must have known that he would eventually have to admit that the last six years, and the swan song of his scientific career, was a complete and utter failure.
The notion that apes had the capacity for language had led Dr. Furness to travel to south Borneo and capture two wild orangutan infants. Later he purchased two juvenile chimpanzees from an exotic animal dealer in Liverpool, England. He did so believing that he would be able to phonetically train these apes to speak. He reasoned that since cognitive tests had shown these apes to be capable of extremely complex actions, language must be within their reach. Once he taught these animals how to speak, he surmised, he would be the first scientist to finally bridge the gap between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. Visions of interviewing the apes for scientific publication drove his daily training sessions.
Unfortunately, it had not worked out the way he had expected. In six months of daily sessions with one of the orangutans he had his greatest success. The orangutan was able to clearly articulate the word “papa.” Not only this, but the psychologist was able to get her to associate the word “papa” with himself. When hearing the word, she would cling to him and repeat it. He was attempting to teach her to say “cup” and vocalize a th sound when the baby orangutan unexpectedly died.
In relating these results to his audience, he attempted to focus on the positive. Even though her speech was limited, he assured them, “she understood almost everything.” This did little to sway his listeners.
What of the chimpanzees?
“On the whole,” lectured Dr. Furness, “I should say that the orang holds out more promise as a conversationalist than does a chimpanzee.”
Only one of the chimpanzees, it seemed, had survived the captive environment of Furness’s home. The surviving chimpanzee, named Mimi, spent her days in lessons learning how to say the word “cup.” However, despite the psychologist’s attempts to form her mouth in the appropriate way with his fingers and a spoon, she was never able to say it. After five years of training, she was able to say one word, though poorly. Mimi was able to say the word “mama.”
As he toiled on through the rest of his lecture, Dr. Furness must have realized that he wasn’t winning over his crowd. Finally, he admitted that his language experiment had been a failure. He ended by quoting an English clergyman who claimed to sleep well knowing that man held dominion over the animals through language.2
After citing the quotation, Furness looked up and stated: “I regret that I am forced to admit, after my several years [in] observation of the anthropoid apes, that I can produce no evidence that might disturb the tranquil sleep of the reverend gentleman.”
Furness’s lecture was published as “Observation on the mentality of chimpanzees and orangutans.” Though, for the most part, dismissed, one significant primatologist took note. His name was Robert Yerkes. Perhaps, he thought, Furness had just used the wrong training methods.3 At this point, Dr. Yerkes began to formulate his own study; a study that would dominate the primatologist’s attention for decades to come.
What was escaping both Dr. Furness and Dr. Yerkes was that, at that very moment, the sounds of chimpanzees communicating were echoing though the forests of Africa. Within these echoes were bits of information far more complex than the words “papa,” “mama,” or “cup.” What was being transmitted was the ever-present drama of the world of the apes: births, deaths, warfare, intimidation, alliances, happiness, sadness, hopes, fears, and plans for survival. Twenty years later, a chimpanzee would be born in these forests which would bring this communication to the human ear.
Jong River, Sierra Leone
In a dark, tropical forest, the cries of a newborn chimpanzee broke the still of the night. The sound alerted all of the chimpanzees in the group to the nest where the young mother had just given birth. As births are always a cause for excitement in a chimpanzee group, everyone awoke to see the new infant. Together they climbed the large tree where the mother had made a nest of branches and twigs. Upon arrival, they found the mother cleaning her female offspring by the light of the moon.4
The group, numbering over forty members, could not all fit in the tree. Some clung to the trunk and branches of the tree while others surrounded the bottom. Some were able to fit in the nest with the new mother and infant. Those in the nest gave hoots to the chimps in the branches. The chimps in the branches gave calls which the chimps at the bottom of the tree responded to with other calls. From a distance, another chimpanzee call was heard. This one started with low hoots and erupted into a loud scream. Immediately recognizing the call, the chimpanzees on the ground moved away from the tree.
Running toward the tree was the leader of the group, the alpha male. At full speed the male raced up the tree, knocking over any chimpanzee in his way. When he reached the nest, the alpha male sat beside the new mother and gave a loud call into the air. The surrounding chimpanzees reclaimed their spots.5
The new mother appeared not to notice the presence of the other chimpanzees. She was very busy cleaning her new infant. As she held her, she gave low grunts to her baby. The infant nuzzled her mother and began to nurse. At this point, a three-year-old chimpanzee, out of curiosity, got very close to the infant. The new mother gave an abrupt yelp. This sufficiently frightened the small chimp to a safe distance. Seeing how frightened the juvenile was, the new mother held out her hand. The three-year-old touched her fingers and they both hooted together. Peace was restored. Comfortably nursing, the new infant failed to react to the whole exchange.
While the new mother cradled her infant, the alpha male began to groom her. As he groomed her, he gave comforting calls. Having witnessed the newest member of their group, the rest of the chimpanzees dispersed to their own nests.
As the night continued, the tired mother fell asleep with her infant attached to her breast. The alpha male fell asleep beside them.
An infant chimpanzee is completely helpless at birth. This newborn chimpanzee will rely on her mother for everything. From protection to learning traits on how to survive in the environment, the newborn chimpanzee is dependent on both her mother and her group. Over the next few years of this newborn’s infancy and juvenile period, she will learn what to eat, how to obtain food, how to behave with other chimpanzees, and other survival techniques. She will learn all of this from her group—as these traits are unique to her group. In a few short years, she will become an expert on everything that her group collectively knows. Through this, she will learn the most important trait central to a chimpanzee’s survival: she will learn to fluently transmit information to any member of her group. She will learn to communicate.
Four thousand nautical miles away, another chimpanzee birth was occurring. Only at this birth, no group was present to teach the newborn how to survive. No alpha male came to investigate. No chimpanzee calls echoed through the night. Instead, the newborn was on a concrete floor surrounded by masked lab technicians watching in silence.
Pushing the technicians aside, another masked individual appeared in the room. This senior technician grabbed the mother and told the others to carefully put the infant in a separate cage. While the newborn cried, the technicians did as they were told. One of them produced a sterile baby bottle. Pushing it into the newborn’s mouth silenced the cries.6
At this point the senior technician removed his mask and smiled. This newborn chimpanzee, he thought, would show the world that a chimpanzee can talk. This newborn’s name was Gua and would be the subject of the much publicized “Gua project.”
Two newborn chimpanzees, separated by half the globe, arrived in two very different worlds. Both would attempt to do what chimpanzees are naturally inclined to do: both would attempt to communicate with the world they were given.
Orange Park, Florida
Robert Yerkes arrived at his primate laboratory early in the morning to begin what he thought would accomplish what Furness could not. Yerkes, fascinated by the prospect of an ape being enculturated by humans and learning to talk, had overseen the birth of the newborn chimpanzee named “Gua.” He enlisted the help of a husband-and-wife team of psychologists, Winthrop and Luella Kellogg. The Kelloggs had a baby boy, Donald. Dr. Yerkes reasoned that if he could place an infant chimpanzee with an infant child, they would be raised the same way. This would lead to an enculturation process whereby the ape would pick up the same traits as the human child, including language. The end result would be a talking, human-acting chimpanzee.7
The Kelloggs jumped at the chance to be a part of this project. They gladly accepted Gua, who was now seven and a half months old, into their home. Gua would be raised as Donald’s sister. At first, the experiment produced some remarkable results. Gua ate with a spoon and fork on a high chair beside Donald. Both Gua and Donald were able to recognize spoken words and commands. Although she preferred to crawl, Gua actually learned to walk upright before Donald.
Donald and Gua became very much like siblings. They would play together and learn from each other. Because of Gua’s influence, Donald would bite people out of both play and aggression. Also, because of Gua’s influence, Donald would walk around on his knuckles even after he learned to walk upright. Gua taught Donald how to spy on people underneath doors. Donald would also produce a series of grunts which he would use back and forth with Gua.
Gua used the same forms of contact as Donald. When she was put to bed, she would reach out for a human-style hug. She would give kisses. She appeared to mimic facial expressions to show various emotional states. As much as she appeared to view Donald as a sibling, she viewed Winthrop and Luella as parents.
The differences between the two also produced some interesting results. Though both were able to recognize visitors, Donald would clearly recognize people by their faces while Gua would have to smell the visitor before she recognized them. The other difference, of course, was speech. Despite Yerkes’s dream of having a talking ape, Gua could say nothing.
After a while, out of frustration, the Kelloggs attempted to train Gua to speak in much the same manner as Dr. Furness. Luella Kellogg would try to form Gua’s lips in order to make her say “papa.” Nothing worked and Gua was never able to talk. At this point, the Kelloggs appeared to lose interest in the Gua project.
Winthrop Kellogg began corresponding with Dr. Yerkes concerning Gua’s progress. He had become frustrated with the speed of Gua’s learning. He also expressed his concerns that Gua could, one day, become violent and hurt Donald. At the same time, Luella became deeply concerned about the fact that Donald was acting more chimplike than Gua was acting humanlike. Donald continued to grunt like a chimp and was behind other children in his speech development. He was also more attached to Gua than other human children. In addition to this, Donald was still biting people.
Finally, the Kelloggs had reached their limit. They returned Gua to Dr. Yerkes. Gua was placed in a cage and became the subject of behavioral experimentation by Ada Yerkes, Robert’s wife. In a very short time span, Gua’s life had gone from being a child reared in a human home, complete with a two-parent family, a sibling, a house, clothing, and a bed, to being a caged laboratory primate. Months later Gua contracted pneumonia and died.
The Gua project had been an abject failure. Gua had not learned to talk. Gua was a chimpanzee attempting to communicate like a chimpanzee in a human world. Her counterpart in Sierra Leone, however, was communicating just fine.
Jong River, Sierra Leone
The clearing of the forest echoed with the sounds of chimpanzees. Grunts interspersed with loud yelps reverberated through the trees. Occasionally the sound of a chimpanzee performing a massive dominance display would silence the other chimpanzees. In addition to the vocalizations, the sounds of branches shaking, branches breaking, and the ground being slapped combined with the calls to create a symphony of chimpanzee communication. With each sound, a new piece of information was being transmitted.
The young chimpanzee was now two years old. She had been napping on her mother’s back when she awoke and looked around. Dusk had fallen and the group was getting situated for the night. She and her mother climbed up the branches in the middle canopy of trees surrounding the clearing.8
Like all chimpanzees, the group was nomadic. Every morning they would get up, travel away from where they had slept the night before, forage for food, and settle on a new spot. A major portion of their nightly routine was setting up camp, in a sense. They would do this by finding just the right spot in the trees to build a nest. Nest building is something that is unique for each chimpanzee. Some build enormous nests with branches, twigs, and any piece of loose debris they happen to find throughout the day. Others merely smash a bunch of branches together and sleep on top of them. The young female and her mother were of the former variety.
The two of them spent the evening building their nest. The young female picked up her mother’s technique. Nest building, like all learned traits, gets passed down through the generations. The mother’s technique was learned from her mother. She would pass the same technique with perhaps a few of her own alterations to her offspring. Slowly, down through the generations, the style may change a bit, but the initial seed of this technique would remain.
As darkness filled the clearing, the chimpanzees sounded the day’s last vocalizations. The alpha male called out several times, surveying his group as they called back to him. When the two-year-old’s mother called out to the alpha male, the juvenile followed her lead and also called. The alpha male responded. In very little time, the entire group fell asleep. The forest that, a few moments before, had been filled with the sounds of chimpanzees was silent and still.
Throughout the night there would occasionally be chimp sounds. An infant would wake up and cry. The mother would hold her young close and the crying would cease. Like humans, the chimps used a combination of both vocalizations they had learned from their group and vocalizations that were genetic calls. For example, a chimpanzee might use a particular call that he learned from his group and is specific to his group. However, a chimpanzee will also produce genetic yelps that they don’t have to learn (much like a human crying). One such genetically programmed call is the alarm call—a sound which a chimp produces to warn others in their group of danger.
The sound of such an alarm call woke the two-year-old chimp from her sleep. She sat up in the nest to the sounds of frantic alarm calls in the distance. Before she could make a sound, she was scooped up by her mother. Clinging onto her mother’s back, the two of them climbed higher up the trees. The two of them peered down into the clearing. They watched as the alpha male climbed down into the lower canopy and began to violently shake branches in a massive display.
Appearing in the clearing were five men. One of the men carried a large burlap sack. The rest had rifles slung around their shoulders and flashlights in their hands. The men whispered to each other as they stared at the alpha male’s display in the lower canopy. Finally they turned away from the male’s display and began to shine their flashlights into the upper canopy.
The young female clutched the back of her mother without making a sound. As the light from one of the flashlights came closer, she let out a whimper. The light hit her eyes, making her squint. Fear caused her to scream out loud. Her mother stood up in the branches of the canopy to make a threatening display. She screamed at the men below and hurled branches at them. One of the men aimed his rifle at the screaming mother. He pulled the trigger. The mother fell from the canopy with her young child still clinging to her back.
The fall broke the leg of the young female. She looked around to see her mother’s bloody and immobile body under her. The alpha male quickly rushed down to her defense. When he leapt toward one of the men, he was quickly shot. He, like the young chimp’s mother, lay completely still. A group of older females had also descended to the ground. They began to charge at the men. They, too, were shot. The young female, in pain, continued to scream as loudly as she could. The man with the burlap bag pried her off of her dead mother’s back and dropped her into the sack. As it was tied, she saw the remains of her group for the last time.9
Inside the sack, the young female heard the alarm calls of her group growing more and more distant. The pain of her leg continued to grow more intense until, finally, the pain along with the stress caused her to lose consciousness.
When she awoke, she found herself lying on the burlap bag in a large metal cage inside the hut of an animal broker in Sierra Leone. The animal broker, having realized that she had a broken leg, was preparing a splint. He drew out a sedative dart and loaded it into his dart gun. He pointed it at the young female and fired. The chimp screamed and within a few moments was unconscious once again.
The next time she awoke she was in another cage, with a splint around her leg and still laying on the burlap sack. This cage was aboard the cargo hold of a large boat bound for New York City. The young female, alone and frightened, looked around for her mother. Not finding her, she desperately clung to her burlap sack for comfort.
Several times a day, a man came through the cargo hold with a large bucket of water. When he poured the water under her cage to rinse it clean, the water splashed her. She learned to climb, with the splint on her leg, to the top of the cage when he came around. Sometimes he would throw the water down so hard it would still splash her. To avoid this, she would wrap the burlap sack around her shoulders and head to shield herself from the water.
Once a day the man would push slices of fruit through the bars of her cage and give her a fresh bottle of water. The cargo hold was hot and loud with the sounds of all the other animals on board. Again, the burlap around her head provided an adequate shield for her—this time against the noise of the cargo hold.
Weeks later, the ship pulled into port in the United States. The American animal dealer waited at the docks, eager to see what this shipment had brought him. When the ship docked, he lit a cigar, climbed aboard, and went down into the cargo hold. There, he went about surveying all of his new animals. When he approached the cage of the young female chimpanzee, he began to laugh. The chimp was looking at him with the burlap sack wrapped around her head like a shawl. He remarked that the chimpanzee looked just like his mother and decided that they should call her “Little Mama.” With that, Little Mama’s life in the United States of America had begun.10
Winthrop Kellogg had just completed his new canine observation center. Since the Gua debacle, he had continued to study comparative animal behavior—although not with apes. He now preferred to work with such animals as water snakes and dogs in the safe confines of the university laboratory.11 He was, by all accounts, done with apes. His correspondence with Robert Yerkes had become increasingly nasty. Yerkes, it seemed, had not at all liked that Kellogg published a book detailing the Gua failure. In fact, he was so angry about it that he had all accounts of the study stricken from the records of the Orange Park station to imply official disapproval of Kellogg’s research.
Winthrop Kellogg, one would imagine, felt betrayed. He had, after all, offered his family up as test subjects. Seeing the effect the project had on his family, especially his son, Kellogg vowed that, for the rest of his career at Indiana University, he would conduct all of his research in a lab.
Yerkes was still convinced that ape language was possible. Upon looking at Kellogg’s notes and seeing that Gua had seemed to comprehend vocal commands, he reasoned that the failure had been not because of improper training or methodological issues but because a chimpanzee was not biologically structured for speech. Larynx placement was too high on a chimp for proper vowel formation. Also, brain areas for speech motor function had not been found in chimps. The proper methodology would have been to teach the ape to communicate gesturally. The proper way, thought Yerkes, would have been to teach Gua sign language.12
So began a primatological obsession with training chimpanzees to use sign language. Decades would follow without success whereby laboratory chimpanzees would be taught signs they would never truly understand. While this was going on, a little chimpanzee had arrived in America, bringing with her only the language she had learned from the group she had been born into.
The ex-Olympic ice-skater waited eagerly for the truck to arrive, carrying her new protégé, a young chimpanzee. Her touring company, an ice-skating circus, had purchased the chimpanzee from an animal dealer with the intention of training her to skate and perform with the show.
The truck arrived with the promised crate in the back. The ice-skater ran over to the crate to meet the chimp. She opened the crate to see Little Mama, once again with a burlap sack around her head. She smiled at the chimp and took her to her trailer. Little Mama had found her home for the next thirty years.
Over the next period of time, Little Mama learned the art of ice-skating. As she trained, she became more comfortable in her surroundings. She even attempted to communicate with her trainer. Unfortunately, the trainer merely heard a series of screeches and had no idea that there may have been a greater meaning involved in what Little Mama was attempting to communicate. Still, the chimp and her trainer found methods of communication which did not rely on the vocal. They developed a series of gestures that, while not as complex and useful as Little Mama’s vocalizations, filled the need of communication.
Training Little Mama to ice-skate took a lot of patience. Even getting past the unfamiliarity with clothing and shoes, there was still ice to contend with. Little Mama had, obviously, never seen ice before. Though frightened, her temperament was good and she was eventually able to be part of the show.
In a tented show in Minnesota during the mid-1940s, Little Mama made her debut with the ice-skating show. Backstage, her trainer dressed her in a clown outfit, complete with a pointed hat, polka-dotted shirt, face paint, and a red rubber nose glued to her face. Her feet were crammed into ice-skates, which caused the bone that she had once broken to ache.
When she was introduced, the crowd cheered at the chimp on ice skates. Gliding across the ice, Little Mama was silent.
The crowd was captivated by the little chimp in front of them. Her antics amazed them. They laughed at her makeup and gasped at her skating. None of them had any idea about where she had come from or what she would be doing right now if she had been left in the wild. To them, she existed only as a trained circus animal. Silently, sliding around ice on skates, wearing clown makeup, and being called “Little Mama,” the young female chimpanzee was as far removed from the banks of the Jong River as she could be.13
A recently opened wild animal park in south Florida had only one species of animal: lions. In fact, the park was a fenced-in area of five hundred acres of swampland with lions roaming free. Tourists could pay to drive through the area and have the lions jump on their car. The park was looking to expand its animal collection and confine the lions to a smaller section of the preserve. Therefore, they began to add such animals as hippos, elephants, and zebras. All of these animals could be successfully kept in a cage-free manner in the preserve and still have visitors view them from the safety of their cars. It would, in effect, be just like going on safari. What they were missing though, were apes. The problem was, of course, how apes could be displayed without a cage or some sort of barrier. The park then devised a very clever way of doing this. Knowing that chimpanzees lacked the ability to swim, the park simply dug out a large pond around a large island that guests could drive by.14 Now they could put a large group of chimps on the island and guests could watch these animals without a cage, acting as they would in the wild. They began their search for chimpanzees.
Chimps, in fact, are quite overpopulated in captivity. Chimpanzees used in laboratories and entertainment generally outlive their usefulness after their adolescent years.15 They become too big and too dangerous for either industry. Therefore, they either end up being euthanized or living out the rest of their lives in a cage.
In 1968, Little Mama had found herself in such a cage. She had actually had an extremely long career in entertainment. She had not been retired because of aggression or outgrowing her usefulness. Little Mama was stuck in an animal dealer’s cage because her circus had shut down.
By 1960, the popularity of circuses had begun to wane. The exponential rise in popularity of movies, television, and popular music led to an exponential decline in the popularity of circuses and other traveling variety shows. Along with this, a greater awareness of how animals were being kept in captivity was forcing circuses to adopt more expensive animal care. Smaller attractions, such as the one Little Mama belonged to, were being forced to close.
By the end of 1967, Little Mama had donned her pair of ice-skates for the last time. Now a relatively elder chimp at thirty-two, there were few places for her to go. Nearly thirty years after her arrival to the United States, Little Mama was once again packed into a crate and sent to an animal broker.
Since her arrival at the ice-skating show, Little Mama had remained silent. Occasionally she would hoot in delight at a treat or yelp if she got hurt; however, she had not vocalized in any sort of communicative way in thirty years. As she was packed into her crate this time, there were no screams or hoots. Little Mama just looked on, clutching a burlap sack, as the crate was nailed shut.
The broker who housed Little Mama learned of the animal park in south Florida and quickly contacted them regarding the gentle ice-skating chimp he had in his care. It was agreed that she would be sent to the park to be part of their first chimpanzee exhibit. She would be the matriarch of a social group. For the first time since being stuffed in a burlap sack in the clearing beside the Jong River, Little Mama would be interacting with other chimpanzees.
In late 1968, Little Mama’s crate was in a rowboat, headed for her new swamp island home. The zookeepers lifted the crate and placed it in the center of the island with several other crates. When the door swung open, Little Mama placed her burlap sack around her shoulders and calmly walked outside. She looked around to see, for the first time since her very early childhood, other chimpanzees approaching her. These chimps were not much older than she had been when she left Africa. They appeared to be just as frightened as she was. She held out her hand to them and repeated the same low grunts her mother had used to calm her down that day at the Jong River. As if they had known her their entire lives, the young chimps came running to her. When she embraced them, she began to vocalize more to them. The vocalizations that came out of her carried with them the whispers of all the chimpanzees at the Jong River. There were, within her own voice, the voices of the alpha male, her juvenile friends, members of her group, and her mother. Little Mama had carried with her, all of these years, a vocal lexicon that had been passed to her from her group. She, alone, had kept it alive. She, alone, would pass it to her new group. This would be the foundation of every vocalization ever made by a chimpanzee at the park; the seeds of which I would discover when I analyzed them four decades later and happened across the language chimpanzees were using without our help. This lexicon would stand as a monument to the miracle being overlooked in the name of pseudoscience and circus acts.
In late 1968, in one corner of the world, a chimpanzee was being trained to use sign language. In another corner, a chimpanzee was being taught to do math problems. In yet another part of the world, a chimpanzee was being trained to perform a circus act. In Loxahatchee, Florida, Little Mama was passing on a learned lexicon of chimpanzee calls.
Twelve hundred miles away from Loxahatchee, a psychiatrist named Dr. Donald Kellogg, son of Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, brother of Gua, was found dead. The cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
When the existence of mind in the mutes is recognized, the qualities it manifests become the subject of investigation.
—LEWIS HENRY MORGAN
Copyright © 2012 by Andrew R. Halloran