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Friday, September 8, 2017

Asking for a Rabbit

Yesterday after some time in the outer pen, Bow came in and asked for a rabbit . "תני לי ארנב "  "Give me a rabbit." A rabbit?? Usually he asks for a snack or a drink, but this time he wanted a rabbit. I went all over the house looking for one to give him. Finally I found this one, which had been a gift to me from Sword. (Bow has not wanted to play with stuffed animals in years.) I brought it in, explained it was mine, but he could play with it. He sniffed at it and threw it aside. He didn't want "a rabbit", after all. So I told him he had to pose with it, since I had gone to all the trouble to find it for him. And he understood and agreed to pose. Yes, these are posed shots. With Bow's cooperation!

Bow posed for a good long moment, giving me both  a nice en face pose and a profile.

To me, that was a proof of personal growth on Bow's part, in that he was willing to cooperate and hold the stuffed rabbit, even though he had lost interest in it and had no earthly use for it. It was not so much about language use as about cooperation. But then I posted the photos on Project Bow's Facebook page, and I got a lot of engagement. The questions were very interesting to me, for a number of reasons. So I will share some of these here, as well as my answers.

Someone asked whether I was trying to teach Bow the Hebrew word for rabbit. I answered that Bow already knew that. He already is fluent in Hebrew. Then they asked whether I wasn't using those letters on the glass to teach Hebrew. I explained the letters were for Bow to spell with, but he acquired both comprehension and production a long time ago, as well as literacy.

One person asked whether Bow was obsessed with rabbits, the way Koko is with cats. I had to admit that he was not. This was an unusual request on Bow's part. Somebody else asked whether Bow might have seen a wild rabbit and was asking for that. I said it was possible for Bow to see wild rabbits over the fence.  Then the first person asked whether perhaps Bow wanted meat, implying he might want  to eat a rabbit.  I answered that we were having chicken for dinner, and if Bow wanted meat, he knew how to ask for that.

Then somebody else asked a really interesting question: "Can chimps understand that the plush animal represents the real one, and is 'the same thing'?" I answered: "Bow is an enculturated chimpanzee, so what I know about him does not necessarily apply to other chimpanzee individuals. It also varies over the lifespan, as it does with humans. I believe that at this point in Bow's life, he associates photos, drawings and playthings shaped like rabbits with the word for rabbit, as well as live rabbits. He's 15 years old and literate."

All of that got me to thinking about the language-related implications of this incident, and also what I may not have gotten across to our audience very well before. First of all, Bow understood Hebrew and English long before he could read and write in those languages. He had total immersion since he was a month old. Here is a link to an article about that:

So what knowledge does Bow have about rabbits, real, imaginary and plush? When he was a baby, he had a stuffed rabbit.

Bow has seen rabbits outside, and I have also shown him video of rabbits I have seen outside, such as this one:

He has also seen the word for rabbit written and has had storybooks containing that word read to him, including my own In Case There's a Fox.

The word we normally use for rabbit in Hebrew is ארנב. While in many storybooks another word,  שפן is used, on the page shown above, both words appear. You can listen to me reading from the Bilingual Edition of the book to Bow in the video below.

Bow was following along on that page, and at just the right moment he pointed at the word for fox,  שועל just as I was saying it. It was one of those spontaneous events that just happened, and it might not be possible to get him to do it again. You can see that happen at 0:38 of the video above. It was a magical moment!

Of course, "fox"( שועל) is the more salient word in the book. But if Bow was following along closely enough to point to the words at the end of the verse as I said them, he probably was paying attention also when I read the word ארנב (rabbit).

So yes, Bow knows what a real rabbit is, he knows the spoken word for rabbit, and he knows how to spell that word.  And yes, he also knows that rabbits can be eaten, because he has seen our dog Teyman catching and eating them.

But we great apes in the Katz family have never had rabbit meat for dinner, so it is unlikely that Bow wanted to eat a rabbit. He identifies more with the primates in our family than with the canines, so he does not try to imtate the behavior of dogs, even when he understands it.

Are all chimpanzees just like Bow? Do they know what he knows? No. No more so than all human beings are just like me. Most humans do not know what I know. They live different lives, and each one has his own knowledge base, which may or may not overlap with mine.

Not all chimpanzees have the same experience with rabbits, with total immersion in Hebrew, or with literacy and picture books about rabbits. What Bow knows is what Bow has experienced. He knows all of those very different things can be referred to as ארנב because he has seen and heard this done many times before. This is true of all of us. You might as well ask whether every human being knows that rabbits, stuffed animals intended to represent rabbits, pictures and paintings of rabbits and the written word ארנב are associated. They do not all know it. It is not some kind of innate inheritance. Language is learned. Bow knows more about the way to represent the concept of a rabbit in Hebrew than anyone, human or chimp, who does not happen to know Hebrew.

All of the above is so obvious to me, that I sometimes forget that I need to explain it to other people. To me, what was so great was that Bow was willing for a moment to put aside his own desires so as to cooperate with me in taking those posed pictures.

Why is that so important? Because it is Bow's lack of cooperation in doing things just for show that is keeping me from proving what he knows and what he can do.

In a recent conversation with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, she shared with me that the reason Kanzi was the superstar of all the bonobos she worked with is not that he was smarter than all the others. The others were very smart, too.  It's that Kanzi  was willing to take on the role of showing what he could do for the camera. He was patient. He was willing to do it slowly and more than once, and beyond what was reasonably interesting to him, just so that the humans filming the video could see.  This is something Bow and I need to work on.

Bow is very smart. But he does not like to do things just for show.


  1. I think in some ways Bow is more human like because he grew up around books and reading.

    1. Hi, Julia, yes, I think he is more like us, because he reads, in the sense that he shares our culture. But he is not really any more human-like than chimp-like in this, as there are humans who have not acquired literacy and even live in social groups where literacy is unknown, and they seem less human-like to us, but they are just as human, DNA-wise, as we are. They are just not members of our culture.

  2. By the way, Irina understands what a computer, cell phone, and camera are for. She probably would turn on the tablet to watch Youtube videos if she could with her paws. Sometimes she is transfixed by documentaries on YouTube.

  3. Upon seeing that picture of a very young Bow with his stuffed rabbit, I wonder if Bow was reminiscing about that rabbit he had as a baby? Maybe feeling a little nostalgic?
    Maybe Bow is turning a corner and finally growing out of his "teenager" stubbornness. :-)

    1. Hi, Kathy. I really don't know which rabbit Bow was thinking of. He used to love that pink rabbit and was very gentle with it for the first four years of his life. He used to hold onto it in his car seat, to feel safe when I could not hold him. But as soon as he was old enough not to need a security object, he tore the rabbit up, which is why he does not still have it today. It is possible though that he is mature enough now to let go of some of his teenaged stubbornness!

  4. I was telling my husband the other day about Bow and his response was "That's amazing". I too think that Bow is amazing.

    1. Thanks, Susan! I think Bow is amazing, too, but then I am prejudiced.