Roger Fouts

Roger Fouts

Roger Fouts is an American primate researcher. He is co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) in Washington, and a professor of psychology at the Central Washington University. He is best known for his role in teaching Washoe the chimpanzee to communicate using a set of signs take from American sign language.

Fouts is an animal rights advocate, citing the New Zealand Animal Welfare Act as a model for legal rights for the Great Apes (Hominidae), and campaigning with British primatologist Jane Goodall for improved conditions for chimpanzees. He has written on animal law and on the ethics of animal testing.

Fouts taught chimpanzees signs from American Sign Language (ASL) by modeling (demonstration and getting the chimps to imitate) and by direct manipulation, where they arranged the chimpanzees' hands into the required shapes. As the studies progressed, they found that the animals used ASL to communicate with each other. The apes created phrases from combinations of signs to denote new things that were brought into their environment. Loulis, Washoe's adopted son, learned basic ASL and over 70 signs directly from Washoe, without human involvement.

Fouts has been a consultant or adviser on four movies, including Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984).

Next of Kin
with Stephen Tukel Mills
(Bard, 1998)

Roger Fouts fulfilled humankind's age-old dream of talking to animals by pioneering communication with chimpanzees through sign language. Now, in Next of Kin, Fouts tells the dramatic story of his odyssey from novice researcher to celebrity scientist and caretaker of a family of chimpanzees, to his impassioned awakening as a crusader for the rights of animals.

At the heart of this captivating book is Fouts's magical thirty-year friendship with Washoe, the chimpanzee he met when she jumped into his arms. We follow Washoe as she grows from a mischievous baby chimp fresh out of the NASA space program into the matriarch of a clan of chimpanzees. Living and conversing with these sensitive creatures has given Fouts a profound appreciation of how much we share with our closest biological relatives, and what they can teach us about ourselves.

This stirring tale of friendship, courage, and compassion will change forever the way we view our biological -- and spiritual -- Next of Kin.


From The Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, Richard Wrangham
... Next of Kin is more than a book about the theory and practice of science. It's a love story.... Scientists aren't supposed to have their objectivity ruined by emotional involvement. But Next of Kin shows that the ape experiments that fail are those that forbid human sympathy for their subjects. For Fouts, chimpanzee and human minds are fundamentally alike, so it makes sense to care deeply about one's chimpanzee subjects.

What Fouts has learned from chimpanzees is that Descartes was wrong. Other animals do have minds. The reason chimpanzees are should be greater. That argument isn't new, but in Next of Kin, it is based on an unparalleled depth of understanding and on a uniquely personal involvement in the battles over congressional legislation and laboratory management. You cannot read this book and stay neutral.

From Audiofile
Roger Fouts recounts the remarkable story of his career teaching chimpanzees the skill of "signing." Discoveries and insights into chimpanzee intelligence will amaze the listener as Fouts proudly reveals their capabilities. Because Fouts began his career as a novice, his naive enthusiasm for his work was fraught with the jealousy and deceit of other researchers. Fouts's love and respect for the chimps he calls"family" superseded all obstacles including near-bankruptcy. Compassion is intertwined with anger as he describes his longtime fight to prevent researchers from using these biological relatives as victims of cruel and inhumane medical and scientific research. Grief-filled words describe the unnecessary and cruel psychological destruction and death of some of his closest chimpanzee brothers and sisters. B.J.P. ©AudioFile, Portland, Maine

From Booklist, August 19, 1997
Can chimpanzees talk? As Fouts explains in this fascinating account, the answer to this question is no. But if the question is rephrased as, Can chimpanzees communicate using nonverbal language? the answer is a resounding yes. In the late 1960s, Washoe, a female chimpanzee, was taught American Sign Language in a groundbreaking study. Fouts was involved with Project Washoe from the beginning, and this account of the experiment and its aftermath reads like a novel. The ups (such as Washoe's inventions of novel signs or names for things) and downs (working with an unpredictable and arrogant senior scientist) of the unfolding story are intertwined with the scientific theories and concepts that underlie all the research being described. The similarities between humans and chimpanzees, particularly in their behavior (and language acquisition is the main behavior being studied), are emphasized and explained in the clear, easy-to-understand narrative. The evolutionary and genetic bases for these similarities are explored early in the text and are woven through the descriptions of Washoe's continuing acquisition of language. By comparing Washoe's behavior in captivity with both the behavior of wild chimpanzees and with autistic children, Fouts leads readers through complex scientific concepts while entertaining them with Washoe's (and his own) stories. What makes this book an exceptional popularization of scientific research is the authors' ability to charm with a fascinating story while also teaching why the story is so fascinating. Extensive notes round out a terrific book that is recommended for all libraries. Movie and foreign rights sold; special promotions to animal-rights groups planned. Nancy Bent
Copyright© 1997, American Library Association. All rights reserved

From Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1997
Though he was studying theories of communication, Fouts (Psychology/Central Washington Univ.) learned a whole lot more than that from the chimps in his American Sign Language program, and he tells their story here with great insight and affection. Thirty years ago, Fouts started teaching chimps American Sign Language (ASL), in hopes of being able to speak directly with them. He was under no illusion that he was teaching chimps the art of communication: They had been communicating in the wild for millennia, with gestures, the dialects of hand movement, facial expressions, and body language. Nonetheless, Fouts was astounded by the speed at which his charges took to ASL and their talents for wordplay and grammar. His research allowed him to put in perspective theories of animal intelligence and language acquisition, from Descartes and Darwin to Skinner and Chomsky, and to formulate his own notions of the remarkable similarity between chimp and human biology and intelligence, of grammar as a complex form of rule-following behavior, and how ASL helped him bridge the sundered audiovisual links experienced by autistics. But clearly the most important thing Fouts feels he learned is that these creatures don't belong in cages, and no matter how much compassion and respect are given the research subjects, morally and ethically, keeping them in captivity is wrong. To drive that point home, he details the barbaric conditions in which lab animals are kept, the excruciating tests they are put through, in powerfully soulful language. And though he can't be counted among the draconians, Fouts recognizes his own culpability in the diminished lives of his charges. A compelling book. Fouts (aided by wildlife writer Mills) has a way of making us all feel responsibility for the fate of these chimps and for the hellacious acts against them. Jane Goodall has written the book's introduction. (16 pages b&w photos not seen) (First printing of 50,000; first serial to Reader's Digest; film rights to Fox 2000; Book-of-the-Month Club featured selection; author tour) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved

Sign Language and Washoe—The Beginning

This video segment is the first of a series produced by doctoral candidate J. Patrick Malone to present the wonderful work of Dr. R. Allen Gardner, Dr. Beatrix T. Gardner, and Dr. Roger Fouts, who taught the highly gestural American Sign Language to Washoe, a young chimpanzee who was eager to enjoy the social interactions that encourage all healthy young hominids to develop the communication curriculum of their culture.

The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute
Central Washington University
Ellensburg, WA 98926-7573 USA
Office: (509) 963-2214
Fax: (509) 963-2234