Various news sources are telling me that a “cigarette-smoking chimpanzee” passed away on Saturday, December 10. The name of the chimp in question is Booee (or Booie), and this immediately pinged my memory: was that not the name of a signing chimp — one of the chimps that researcher Roger Fouts communicated with while he was raising Washoe, arguably the most famous of the signing chimps?
I wasn’t hallucinating. Here’s a link to a heart-rending little scene from the book Next of Kin, where Fouts describes meeting Booee again after many years apart. And that’s the same Booee, a lifelong lab animal, unwilling participant in probably several dozen experiments until being briefly featured on a television show made him less than political to keep. He was moved to the Wildlife Waystation in California in October, 1995.
This particular chimpanzee could speak to humans. He used sign language to do so, but he could do so — one of the first of a tiny wave of “animals” which could speak a human language. He was part of the community that helped open the door between humans and their closest cousins, the great apes, and helped to start the (still ongoing) movement which is trying to get chimpanzees out of the laboratory. He is part of the snowball that started the avalanche of things like the Great Ape Protection Act, which would have been unthinkable when Booee was born. This guy is one of the founders of a little, slow, quiet revolution in the way humans think about animals.
And something like 90% of his obituaries say “he was on television once”, “he smoked cigarettes”, and “he begged for candy”. Why are those chosen as his defining attributes? Are they just the only ones the news outlets think we’ll understand? Booee is a historical figure. He did a lot for animal/human understanding and the promotion of the idea that animals are not just automatons with fur. It might be hard to encapsulate the meaning of what he was, what he did and the way he changed the world into a blog-sized sound bite, but “cigarette-smoking chimpanzee”? Is that all we can come up with?
I know that the news media are just trying to garner readers, and that “cigarette smoking chimpanzee” probably: a) resonates better for most people than does “signing chimpanzee” and b) is “cuter” and more “sound bite friendly”. But please — is that the only thing you can think of to say? (Here’s the Wildlife Waystation obituary for Booee, in case you’d like to see how to do it with class.)