The World’s Hottest Chimps and Apes
Real and fictional, these high-achieving simians evolved into legends, advancing our understanding and entertaining us, whether they wanted to or not.
WASHOE the chimp may be the most famous of the “talking” apes, those used in experiments to see if apes could be taught human sign language. Washoe’s training began in Nevada in the 1960s under University of Reno scientists Allen and Beatrix Gardner; it was continued by Roger Fouts, who began as a graduate student working with the Gardners. Washoe developed a vocabulary of over 200 signs, though the precise nature of her knowledge and understanding remains the topic of lively debate. She also taught signs to another chimp, her “adopted son” Loulis. In 1980 Washoe moved to Central Washington University, where she lives with other chimps in a special institute set up by Fouts.
NIM CHIMPSKY is another signing chimp, named in a fond salute to (or humorous jab at) the linguist Noam Chomsky. Nim’s sign language training was overseen by Columbia psychology professors Herbert Terrace and Thomas Bever; like Washoe, Nim Chimsky learned a limited number of signs but did not acquire the more advanced characteristics of human language. He died of a heart attack in March of 2000 while in retirement at an animal ranch in Texas.
Project Nim, a documentary film by James Marsh about Nim’s training (pictured here), was released in 2011.
Yet another signing ape, KOKO THE GORILLA, became a celebrity thanks to her touching fondness for a kitten. Koko herself chose the pet from a litter in 1984, giving it the signed name of All Ball. Photos of the gentle gorilla cuddling the kitten were widely published. The story had a sad end in December of that year, when All Ball got loose and was hit and killed by a car. Koko’s trainer, Dr. Francine Patterson, wrote a chidren’s book about the pair titled Koko’s Kitten.
Koko was famous enough that she had already been the subject of a 1978 documentary, Koko, a Talking Gorilla, by director Barbet Schroeder.
The fictional KING KONG is certainly the tallest of the great apes, standing around 25 feet high in his original 1933 movie. (Cineastes have argued over his “actual” height, with estimates ranging from 18-35 feet.) In the film the big brute from Skull Island is captured and taken to Manhattan and displayed in chains; he breaks free, grabs the beautiful Fay Wray, and climbs to the top of the Empire State Building before being shot by fighter planes and finally plunging to his death. Bummer. The movie made Kong a star (he once even co-starred with Godzilla) and became the signature role for Wray.
Another top movie ape was RODDY McDOWALL. No offense intended: the well-regarded British actor donned a monkey mask to play compassionate Dr. Cornelius in the 1968 sci-fi classic The Planet of the Apes. He later appeared in sequels like Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and despite a film career spanning seven decades he is probably best known for his years as a futuristic monkey.
HAM THE CHIMP holds a place of honor in aviation history: he was the first American primate in space. Ham was blasted into a sub-orbital test flight on 31 January 1961, was weightless for over six minutes, and barely survived an ocean landing when seawater leaked in through an open spacecraft valve. Three months later astronaut Alan Shepard became America’s first human in space. Another chimp, Enos, later preceded John Glenn into orbit.
BIGFOOT may or may not belong on a list of famous apes, according to your point of view. The mythical (?) creature of North America is generally described as apelike, though he seems to walk on two legs like a human. The most famous alleged evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, grainy film footage shot by Roger Patterson in 1967, shows a hairy and distinctly apelike creature about 7 feet tall. In the Pacific Northwest, Bigfoot is more commonly known as Sasquatch.
Honorable Mention: JANE GOODALL. The compassionate British anthropologist has spent much of her life in Africa, living among and studying the continent’s chimpanzees. In the process she became a world-renowned conservationist and the world’s best-known authority on chimp behavior. Jane Goodall has at least half a dozen honorary doctorates, and in 1995 she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.