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Alex's legacy is to listen to animals

Alex's legacy is to listen to animals

By Kathy Guillermo
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

The passing of the parrot Alex, who spent 30 years in a laboratory learning to speak and understand many English words, has prompted a discussion about one point that Alex raised repeatedly: These experiments are boring. It is said that when the parrot got tired of identifying objects or answering questions, he simply stated, "I'm going away now."

Presumably, Alex got his break, but it raises an interesting question: If you teach animals to speak our language, shouldn't you listen to what they say? And perhaps just as important - shouldn't you ask the right questions?

Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has spent three decades studying language learning in great apes and recently published a scientific journal article on the topic.

Savage-Rumbaugh points out that scientists' efforts (including hers) to teach chimpanzees English words are somewhat meaningless if what we hope to learn is something about real communication among chimpanzees in their own world. These studies are compromised because they are limited to individual chimpanzees and are abandoned (along with the chimp - usually to a cage somewhere for the next four or five decades) once the animal has grown strong enough to, like Alex, refuse to cooperate.

Thus researchers have missed an opportunity to hear what chimpanzees might say about the experience of being a member of the ape culture.

Savage-Rumbaugh is trying to rectify this oversight now with a special group of bonobos (close relatives of chimpanzees) who live in a trans-species culture - one that is both bonobo and human - and communicate across both cultures. With the goal of finding out exactly what makes their lives meaningful, at least in captivity, Savage-Rumbaugh asked some of the bonobos yes-or-no questions. (Hear some of the animals' answers at .)

What they want, it turns out, is more complex than one might think. Bonobos long for travel, exploring new places, working for what they achieve, occasional privacy, finding their "unique role" in their social group, teaching their young ones what they have learned, lifelong meaningful relationships, respect from their own kind and recognition from people for their ability to use language and to determine their own futures. Sound like anyone you know?

Other nonhuman primates have expressed themselves eloquently on many subjects. Gorillas Koko and Michael, who have worked for several decades with researcher Francine Patterson, have discussed fears, dreams and even death. When Koko was asked where gorillas go when they die, Koko used sign language to say, "Comfortable hole, kiss-bye." When do they die? "Trouble, old," Koko answered. How do gorillas feel when they die - happy, sad, afraid? "Sleep," Koko said.

Given what these animals have told us - in our own language - how can we keep parrots in tiny cages and deny them even their right to fly? How can anyone condemn animals to lives of deprivation and misery in circuses or roadside zoos? How can we continue to put our great ape cousins in laboratory cages and experiment on them?

Many countries have already recognized this injustice and banned the exploitation of great apes. Earlier this month, the European Union Parliament adopted a resolution to end great ape experiments throughout the Union. The United States should follow suit and provide permanent sanctuary for all those who are now imprisoned in laboratories.

My guess is that most species, not just parrots, gorillas and bonobos, would tell us that they long for better lives than what we've forced on them. Perhaps they would all say, "Please don't take away my chance to lead a fulfilling life of my own." Maybe we should try to understand their language for a change.

Kathy Guillermo is director of research for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front Street, Norfolk, Va. 23510;

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