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Friday, April 30, 2010

Chimpanzee Vocalizations

I mentioned in my last post that when Bow got upset with me about the apple, he started screaming. Now, of course, all I mean by that is that it sounded like inarticulate screaming to me. But Bow claims that when he does that, it's not screaming. He insists that he is talking, but I'm too deaf or slow to understand him.

Chimpanzee vocalizations are generally higher pitched and faster than our own speech. Consonants, or syllable onset, the period of time before the vowel is heard, are shorter. This means that for a human being to identify a chimp's attempt at a consonant using the naked ear and in real time is pretty much impossible.

Research is currently being undertaken to see if there is some way to identify hidden contrasts in chimpanzee and bonobo vocalizations.

Meanwhile, Bow is kept completely isolated and not allowed to talk via phone or Skype with other chimps and bonobos. Is there any logical reason for the total embargo on communication with Project Bow?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reverse Psychology

I've been very preoccupied lately. Interviewing potential interns, looking into alternative ways to monetize my sites, recruiting singers, and talking on the phone with old friends. I don't always give Bow 100% of my attention, even when we are locked together in the confines of the pen. Sometimes he tolerates my inattention, sometimes he protests against it, and sometimes he uses reverse psychology.

Today, I promised Bow he could have an apple for a snack if he behaved while I went out to the mailbox and met Sword as she got off the school bus. Sword and I were chatting all the way back to the house, and when I got back into the pen with Bow, I forgot about the snack. He took my hand and spelled: "Don't give me the apple."

I looked at him, confused, and the look on his face reminded me. "I'm sorry, Bow, I forgot." But just to make sure, I asked: "So, you don't want me to give you the apple?" He got very upset and started screaming at me.

"Okay, okay, I'll get the apple," I relented.

It's not Bow who has the problem with social cues!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"I don't want new people"

It's that time of year again. Time to interview applicants for the Project Bow Summer Internship. I have to go over their documents and set up phone interviews and read between the lines and make some kind of gut level assessment. There are the things they say, but just as important are the things they don't say. There are the things I can ask them, and the things it is better not to ask.

Even though our internship program has gotten us some wonderful people to work and play with over the years, Bow and I are always a little on edge while it is all in suspense. Who will come? Will we like them? Will they like us? Will they stay for the whole period, or will their "grandmother" mysteriously become ill, requiring them to make a hasty departure? Will we click? Will they judge us and find us wanting?

Anybody who volunteers is bound to be a good person, because there is no pay involved and no reason to come help us, unless they really care. But even good people can have disagreements, and, besides, the biggest unresolved issue in human relations is: what does it mean to be good?

Not everyone who loves chimpanzees agrees on what is best for them. Some of the biggest areas of disagreement are between people who care. The last thing we need is an animal rights activist intent on "liberating" Bow. So I have to be very careful when making my selection.

Lawrence came over today to watch Bow, while I ran errands. I mentioned that I was interviewing people this week. "Oh. What does Bow think about that?" he asked.

"I don't. We haven't discussed it."

While I was gone, Lawrence asked Bow what he thought about the interns. Bow spelled: "I don't want new people."

He never wants new people, and he can be mean and conniving when they first come. But with most of our interns, once the ice has melted, Bow is quite attached to them and very sorry to see them go.

Accepting new people into our lives means taking a chance. It's usually well worth it. But right at first, it's hard to trust somebody new.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Self-Reliance and the Pecking Order

Yesterday, while Lawrence was with Bow, Sword and I introduced our new batch of chicks to last year's brood. Rufus, the rooster, exercised a remarkable restraint and showed himself to be a true gentleman. He didn't once peck at the little chicks, and if he did want them to move, he feigned an attack, but never followed through. It was as though he were thinking: "Future wives for me, better be gentle while they're yet too small." The two Long Island Red hens were not as kind, but reserved their pecking mostly for moments when the little ones were in their way at the feeders. But our other hen, a lowly red, who showed some signs of being a victim of pecking herself, was downright vicious. So we had to separate the little chicks and put them back in their own enclosure.

Isn't this often the way it is in life? Those who have success can afford to be generous, but anyone too low on the pecking order jumps at the opportunity to push someone even smaller around. "A servant when he reigneth."

And what about Bow? What role does he play in our attempts at subsistence farming? He watches from the sidelines, because self restraint is not his forte. He could learn a few things from Rufus.

When I first moved here and started Project Bow, one of my dreams was to teach Bow self reliance. I have ten acres. I had visions of teaching Bow how to milk a cow, how to plant a garden, how to pick fruit.

But without self-restraint, the agricultural life style just doesn't work. Bow would rather eat the seeds than plant them. When given access to lots of fruit, he'll eat one bite out of each and move on to the next. He never plans for the future, and what's more, he seems to look down on me for doing so.

I told a fellow primatologist once that I wanted to let Bow have an Easter chick to raise, but he would surely kill it. She said: "If I were you, I would let him. How else can he learn? If he kills one chick, get him another, and another, and another until he stops killing them."

"But that's encouraging him to kill!" I protested.

"Aya, you eat chicken!" she admonished me. (She's a vegetarian. I'm not.)

"Yes, I eat chicken, but I don't kill them for sport."

What do you think? How best to teach self-restraint? Will Bow ever grow to be a gentleman farmer?

Monday, April 26, 2010

He Gave Us Light

While I was out running errands today, Lawrence stayed with Bow and also replaced the old pull chain to the ceiling light with a cable. When I got back for lunch, Bow was running around in circles, and when he finally settled down, he took my hand and spelled out: "The guy tried to give us light."

"Yes, Bow," I said. "He gave us light."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pull the Cord

It's a dark day in the pens. Dark and stormy outside. Dark and gloomy inside. The pull cord to the lights that hang on the ceiling above the pens got stuck, and when I tried to pull harder, it broke. Then the remaining cord dangled into the pen, out of reach for me, but not out of reach for Bow.

"Bow, could you turn the light on for Mommy?" I asked.

He climbed up there, and he pulled once, pulled twice, pulled sideways, pulled forward, and broke the remaining bit, which stayed in his hands.

We're going to wait till Lawrence comes next week to fix it. Meanwhile we've been napping a lot. It's pleasant weather for a nap.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

People Like Him!

"Bow, just tell me what you want." It was the usual routine. Bow being uncooperative and me trying to encourage him to speak this morning at breakfast.

"They didn't give you a chimp who likes to talk," he spelled out in Hebrew.

Sword, on the other side of the glass, not taken in by his "poor me" act, insisted: "There's no 'they' Bow. You choose what you do. Nobody makes you act like this. It's just you!"

That's when when Bow switched languages. He started spelling out in English: "People like me."

I laughed. "Yes, people like you," I said in Hebrew. We frown on code-switching in this house. I don't let my kids get away with switching languages in the middle of a conversation.

But he spelled out in English again: "OK, I love Sword, too."

Not exactly on point, but much more positive than the usual tangents he goes on.

Friday, April 23, 2010

He used to want to go to school

This morning, I saw Sword off to the school bus and came back to ask Bow what he wanted to eat. He had already had grapes, but I figured he probably wanted something more. So he took my hand next to glass, and I asked him: "What do you want, Bow?" Just as I asked this, we saw the school bus through the window on its second run past our mailbox. "Once, Bow wanted to go to school," Bow said.

"And you don't want to go to school, anymore?"

"No," he answered. "Everybody is bad."

"Okay. So what do you want now?"


I gave him cereal. What else could I do?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Music Lessons

Yesterday, Sword's music teacher made a house call. It was very kind of her to do this and goes way above and beyond the call of duty. Normally, I have a sitter with Bow when I take her to her piano lesson, which takes place every Wednesday afternoon. But this week Lawrence's wife is away at a conference, and he has to stay home and take care of the baby. So he can't sit with Bow while Sword has her piano lesson.

The music teacher came to the pen to say hi to me and Bow before she went off to teach Sword. She and Bow have already met, as I consulted with her once on a different musical matter. Then she and Sword started their lesson in the interior of the house, and Bow listened, entranced, to every note they played. (I could hardly hear the music myself, but Bow has much better hearing than I do.)

At dinner last night, Bow had this to say: "I'm mad at the music lady."


"Because she didn't teach Bow."

Sword said: "Oh, come on, Bow, you wouldn't have studied. You just wanted to play with her."

Bow agreed: "Yes."

It's not that I haven't tried to get him music lessons. Bow enjoys music, and he even claims that he can sing better than I can, which, of course, isn't saying much. Back when he was three, I tried to get him to learn how to play the recorder under the tutelage of a well known flautist, Bettine Clemen. I got him a cheap plastic recorder, and it was my hope that he would follow her instructions. "Blow! Blow!" we all encouraged him. He did seem to be blowing into the recorder, but no sound was coming out. Then we saw that he had already cracked open the whole back side of the recorder!

We tried other things. Kazoos, harmonicas, toy pianos ... Nothing really worked. Eventually, we switched to drums. There is even a video of Bow playing the drums while Bettine Clemen plays the flute.

But even drums can be destroyed. Nowadays, if Bow want to drum along with a musical piece, he can always bang in time on the grid of his pen.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Bow is unbribable. In this sense, his personal integrity surpasses that of many a judge I have known. However, this poses almost insurmountable challenges for me as a mother and a researcher, when trying to find positive motivational strategies.

Sometimes Bow and I have really counter-productive exchanges. For instance, this weekend, I could tell that Bow wanted to go out in the yard, but he refused to say so. Mind you, he didn't refuse to spell out words. It's just that he would say things like: "Everybody is bad" instead of "I want to go out." He'd be looking toward the yard with great longing, and he'd be gesturing toward the door, but when he spoke, it had nothing to do with that. "Bow, if you want to go outside, just say so," I told him. -- "No. They won't win."

I'm not sure who "they" are, but I can't help but feel that I'm included.

He does this kind of thing with Lawrence on the computer, too. Lawrence will tell Bow that he can have a snack or go out, or some other thing that Bow obviously wants, if he'll just spell it out on the touchscreen. Bow will pick up the chopstick as if he is about to do something, then put it back down, and start examining his nails as if he really doesn't care. Then, just when Lawrence is leaving to empty the potty and is no longer in the same pen with Bow, Bow will finally break down and spell "out", and the computer will sound out the word.

It's very important for Bow that we know that it was his idea to say something and that he's not just doing it to get a reward.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


In a small town, people like to gossip. We're all interested in what our neighbors are doing. Bow is no different. When he started spelling out words, in the summer of 2007, one of his favorite topics was what the neighbors across the road were doing. He told me some really tall tales, which I am not going to repeat here. Those neighbors have long since moved on, but I don't have any real faith in Bow's veracity, and I think he was telling these stories as a way to keep himself entertained.

Yesterday, when I went into town to get groceries, I heard about a tall tale that someone has been telling about me. Apparently, some guy has been going all over town telling people that I live with a troop of monkeys and an orangutan, and that the interior of my house is constructed entirely of bullet proof glass, all paid for by government grants at the public's expense! The lady who related the story to me laughed, as everyone knows that none of that is true.

The fact that I have an adopted chimpanzee who can spell out words and that I raised him along with my own child using my own money is not sufficiently entertaining. We need a castle made of bullet proof glass,a troop of monkeys and an orangutan to turn it into spell-binding tale!

Monday, April 19, 2010

T -- For Talk

Bow has been spelling out words since he was five years old, but because he is so much faster than we are, he takes our hands and points to the letters, to make sure we can see what he has spelled. In the past, many attempts by Bow to communicate with us via lexigrams were unsuccessful, not because we weren't paying attention so much as because we are constitutionally incapable of keeping up with his rate of speed. Only after we watched a video of the exchange and slowed it down could we see what he had said.

However this has opened up a whole can of worms: accusations that we were the ones spelling and not him, that there was cuing, that it wasn't real. And, really, he is capable of slowing down and pointing at one letter at a time. We've seen him do it. But he has no confidence that he will be understood, and so he often stops with one letter.

Lawrence was sitting for me with Bow this morning while I went grocery shopping. Bow can communicate with Lawrence by pressing letters on a touchscreen computer by means of a chopstick, or he can just point to letters on the glass. Lawrence has been trying to encourage Bow to spell to him in English without holding Lawrence's hand. So far, he has managed to get Bow to spell when Lawrence is only touching him lightly, for reassurance. But when there is no touch between them, Bow will go up to the glass and point at one letter and then stop and wait patiently for Lawrence to join him at the glass. For weeks now, the one letter Bow has been pointing at time and time again, all by himself, has been "T".

This morning, Lawrence asked him: "Bow, how come you always point at T?"

Bow spelled back: "For talk."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bow and Social Ranking

A basic rule in the pens is that people go in with Bow one at a time. During an initial introduction to a new person, I will sit in with them, but I will sit in a corner, making myself as small as I possibly can. After Bow knows somebody, and that person has earned the right to enter the pen, then Bow and that person can proceed with their relationship, but we never go in all together. Why? Because of social ranking, dominance hierarchies and the need to duke it out.

Bow wants to know who ranks higher. We all secretly do, don't we? Even if we're just having coffee with a friend, we might in some hidden part of our mind be wondering: "Who is more important here: him or me?" We've been socialized not to think like that, but 'fess up! Haven't you ever wondered?

There are human societies that are highly hierarchical. When two Korean students meet, for instance, they have to ask each other when each was born, so that they will know who ranks as senior. This will determine who will call the other "elder brother/elder sister" and "younger brother/younger sister." I don't know much about Japanese society, but I understand that it is also highly stratified, and requires the use of an extensive system of honorifics. How you rank determines what you call everybody and how you address them.

In French, as in many other European languages, there is a politeness distinction between addressing someone as "tu" or "vous". Originally, "tu" was second person singular and "vous" was second person plural, but the need to indicate verbally who is more important led to a different usage. English went so overboard with its politeness to everyone that it totally leveled the distinction between singular and plural second person. Nobody is addressed as "thou" anymore except for God, who obviously doesn't rank very high.

I come from a relatively egalitarian background. In Hebrew, second person singular still means you're talking to one person, and plural means there are several people being addressed. But even in egalitarian societies, not everybody ranks the same.

For a chimp, ranking is a matter of utmost importance. Bow wants to know who is more important, and he thinks the best way to find out is to start a brawl and to see who ends up on top. We try to avoid this by going in one at a time.

The other day, Bow's sitter, Lawrence and the computer guy, Tracey, were both on the same side of the zoo glass, away from Bow, for a moment. When Tracey, the computer repairman, arrived, Lawrence let him into the pen away from Bow. I looked at Bow and he was bristling with excitement. He let out an involuntary cry indicating that a fight was about to ensue. Bow was beside himself with joyous anticipation. "Fight, fight!" his vocalization said. He was so disappointed when the two human males did not gratify his need to find out which one ranked higher!

"We don't do that, Bow," Lawrence said to him. "We don't have to fight."

Bow's been raised among humans all his life. He's never seen a fight, except on TV. But he has a theory of mind, and like all of us, he projects his own motives onto others. He can't help but expect Lawrence and Tracey to behave the way he would under the same circumstances.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Then and Now

It's April in the Ozarks. Spring is upon us and everything is in bloom. This is the time when Bow and I chafe the most at our confinement. In April of 2007, when Bow was five years old, we shut ourselves away in the pens, never to come out again. Before then, we got to go everywhere. We even got to travel.

Here is a video of Sword and Bow in New Hampshire where we vacationed when she had just turned six and he was three and a half.

They used to do everything together, even slept in the same bed. Here is a video from the same visit to New Hampshire, at bedtime:

Sword and Bow's relationship has been altered by these circumstances. Now she breakfasts on one side of a pane of zoo glass, while he enjoys his meals on the other side. Only I can navigate between the two worlds.

When Sword goes to feed the chickens, Bow and I watch from the outer pen.

Sword is free to come and go, but we have our limited sphere of activity. I can leave after Bow goes to bed, or when there is a qualified sitter for Bow, but in practical terms, I spend most of my days in the pens.

Three years ago, when we started living this way, friendly observers thought this arrangement could not possibly last. "You're both going to go crazy in such a small space." But Bow blossomed under this confinement. He didn't show us that he had acquired literacy until we moved to the pens. And I am also finding that I have a new focus here, with the internet as my window on the world. Imprisonment isn't always a bad thing, if you've got good company.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bow and Chess

This morning at breakfast Sword mentioned that at the school MAP test dance today, in addition to dancing and refreshments, there will also be board games.

"You mean like monopoly?" I asked

"Yeah. But there'll be easier ones," she said, "like checkers and chess."

I wonder why she thinks chess is easier than monopoly, I thought. As I was pondering this, Bow took my hand and spelled: "They gave me chess once."

"What is he talking about?" Sword asked, not really trusting that Bow had anything important to add to the conversation. (They are going through a rough patch in the sibling relationship.)

"What do you mean, Bow?" I asked.

"Bow played chess once," Bow spelled in Hebrew.

"Oh, that's right," Sword remembered. "You weren't any good at it..."

When Bow played chess with me, if I took one of his pieces, he insisted that we change sides and that my side of the board should be his. When he played with Sword, he tried to copy every move she made. Then when these strategies did not work, he gave up.

Bow is plenty smart enough, but he needs to stop being so fixated on winning.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Impulse Control

One of Bow's problems is impulse control. Or, at least, that is one of my difficulties with his behavior.

Let's be very clear about this: there are two sides to every story, and like everything else, impulse control is something you can have too much of, as well as too little of. People who are too quick to anger can lose valuable opportunities in friendship, employment and every aspect of life. There are human beings who find themselves behind bars for life, because they could not control their momentary destructive impulses. But there are also people who get victimized all their life, because they are too slow to anger. Nobody is afraid that they'll get mad, so people walk all over them.

We seem to come into life with a built in level of impulse control. We can learn to hold back to some extent, and we can learn to simulate anger that we do not actually feel in order to protect ourselves, but there are limits to this process. It's hard to fake what you feel, and ultimately there's a certain level of honesty that each of us owe to ourselves.

Different environments promote different levels of self-control. Living in a jungle, those with too high an impulse control setting will perish. Living an ivory tower, people whose impulse control is too low will be ejected. Individuals conform to their environment to the extent that they can, but they also shape their social environment by the feedback that they give others.

Bow and I are locked into the same struggle that we see reenacted everywhere else in life. If either of us gives in too soon, then we betray the cause of what sort of world we want to live in. If we never give in, then we can't live together. It's a conundrum!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Where will my kids go to high school?

My daughter informed me yesterday that she wants to go to the local high school when the time comes. (She's in fifth grade right now.) I had dreams about sending her to a really "good" school ever since she was born. I was thinking of Putney, in Vermont. I was hoping we could all move there, when the time came. But now with restrictions on non-human apes traveling, and the difficulty of generating revenue for Project Bow, the local high school is looking like the most probable final outcome. And she wants that, because that's where all her friends are going!

I never went to high school. I never had all those "normal" experiences. Maybe letting her do that is the best thing for her.

Poor Bow is so very much longing to flex his own social muscles and impress a few conspecifics with how "cool" he is, too. I wish there were a local high school for him to attend.

Bow loves parties. Here he is singing along at his eighth birthday party:

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Back to Bullying: What Makes Adults Bullies?

This blog seems to alternate subjects: bullying one day, primatology the next. Actually, the subjects are more closely related than you would think. Chimpanzees are known to bully other chimpanzees. It is a very big part of chimpanzee culture. Primatologists are also known for sometimes bullying other primatologists, so it seems to be a behavioral pattern that none of us can quite escape.

When I was little, I tended to judge bullies very harshly. One of the adults in my life took me aside and said: "You know, for a lot of these kids, it is just a stage that they are going through. Don't be so hard on them. Eventually they will grow out of it, and when they're grown they won't do it at all. They're just too young to understand." I asked her how she knew this, and she admitted that she had once participated in bullying a child her own age. She had not been one of the ring-leaders, but she had gone along with it.

Does bullying always stop when a child matures? What about the adult bullies in the business world?

My latest hub ponders some of these issues.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Who's in Charge?

I got an email this morning from a reader who wanted to leave a comment, but somehow wasn't able to because of poor internet access and getting cut off in the middle of composing it. I'm going to copy a part of what she had to say here:

I also wondered how Bow sees himself in the family dynamic. For instance, he said to you, "Let them play", from a position of authority, as if it was up to him to give the children permission to play, and he seemed to be telling you that as if you were his second in command, so you could carry out his orders by telling the girls to go play. Or did he mean to play with him?
Bow often does seem to think that he's the boss here. He tells me that he is the man of the house. He wants to control the situation. Even though he defers to me in many ways, he also lets me know that I can't order him around with impunity. He's only nice when he chooses to be. I can't make him.

Really, every struggle between any two people is about who has control. Don't you think? Most disagreements are not due to misunderstanding. They are caused by a conflict of interest.

Sometimes when I have to leave the pen for a moment, I explain to Bow why. For instance, I say: "I have to put dinner in the oven now, Bow. If I don't, dinner won't be ready on time. So I'm going to leave you for a couple of minutes to do that. Okay?"

He answers "Okay" or "Yes". And if I have taken the trouble to explain it to him, he will usually behave while I am gone. Now, I wasn't actually asking for permission to leave by saying "Okay." I was explaining it to him and wanting to make sure he understood before I left. But he may see the whole thing quite differently!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Portrayals of chimpanzees range from totally cute and precious to vicious killer animal. My Bow is not really at either extreme. I mean, yes, he can be cute, but lately I've noticed that when he's conforming to the precious template, it's because he wants to draw my attention away from something naughty he's done.

Sword had a friend over for a sleepover Friday night. Bow usually likes to try to scare Sword's friends or to impress them with his prowess. He believes that a female who sees him all puffed up with his hair standing on end and throwing his full weight against the glass will be bowled over by his might and splendor and will want to submit to him. It doesn't seem to work this way, but he never gives up.

At breakfast on Saturday, though, he suddenly became all nice and conciliatory, and not knowing why, I thought he was turning a new leaf and had decided to be more mature. He complimented Sword's friend. Then he said to me, all magnanimous: "Let them play." (As if I were the one who didn't want to allow the girls to play.)

"Isn't Bow being really nice!" I exclaimed to the girls. Then I saw the puddle on the floor!

This is how he is. He can be really nice. But... it's not always genuine. If it weren't for the puddle on the floor, he would have been hurling insults at the guest and trying to impress us all with how big and strong he is.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Anyway, for those of you interested in a semi-autobiographical account about bullying, see my Punky-Wunky story.

Bullies and Bullying

I've been thinking a lot about bullies and bullying. The topic came up when a girl from Ireland recently committed suicide in response to bullying. There was a great outcry.

Is it okay to fight back? Will fighting back make us just like the bullies? Should we instead remind ourselves that bullies are busy people and that they will soon tire of us and move on to somebody else?

Somebody on the Hubpages forum stated that if we follow a policy of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth then all the world would be eyeless and toothless. But that's only if you go after the wrong persons, don't you think?

The difference between justice and injustice is just that: getting the right person for the right reason at the right time in the right way.