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Monday, November 24, 2014

Communicating about Crumbs

This morning, we ran out of the cereal that Bow and I usually have for breakfast. When I went to pour Bow out a bowl of Oatmeal Squares,after he asked for cereal, there were none left. So I went for the Special K that came in a variety pack, one of those small personal-sized boxes.

Bow didn't like it. He played with his cereal, but most of it remained uneaten. When something like that happens, there's nothing to do about it, but just clear away the full bowl. I can't force Bow to eat it. I don't encourage discarding uneaten food, and had he asked for something else, after wasting the cereal, he would not have gotten it, but Bow did not seem hungry, so he just let me clear without making further demands.

Later on, he asked to go outside. It is still cold out, but not as cold as before, so I agreed. I unlocked the door that leads to the hall that leads to the airlock that leads to the outer pen. Bow went into the hall, and I was following, when I felt something with my bare foot. I looked down, and I noticed there were a few flakes of Special K Cereal on the floor.

"What's this here?" I asked, in a kind of annoyed tone of voice.

Bow came back in from the hall, saw the flakes, picked them one by one off the floor and discarded them in the empty potty. I didn't tell him to do that, and I was a little surprised.

"Okay, then." I said, and we proceeded down the hall to the outside.

The trash can on my side of the inner pen this morning after breakfast

We don't have a trash can on Bow's side of the inner pen, because  he's likely to knock it over during a display. We only have the potty, and it took years of work to get him not to knock that over. But Bow understands what trash is, where it goes, and that I get annoyed by crumbs on the floor. So while I didn't tell him to help clean up, he figured out on his own what would make me pleased enough to proceed with our journey to the outside.

Bow did not stay outside long because it is cold
Is that language use? Yes and no. Bow didn't just understand what I said, which was a question about what it was that I felt with my foot on the floor. He also understood how I felt about it, that it was  very likely to ruin the possibility of my cooperating with him about going outside, and he understood what he needed to do to fix it. That's more than many an autistic human child would be able to get out of what little I said.

Bow has great insight into human nature, but he still is not trustworthy

Please, don't misunderstand. I am proud of Bow, of his obvious intelligence and his great ability to cooperate creatively with me, but this does not mean that I would trust him enough to leave the door to the outer world unlocked. Bow is Bow. He's cunning, crafty and has his own ideas, that do not always coincide with mine. There's a reason the door from the inner pen does not lead directly to the outer pen. Bow can dance circles around me and around Project Bow volunteers, and I designed it this way to prevent him from doing just that. People get very disoriented by how fast chimpanzees can be. We are slow pokes compared to them, and communicating and cooperating requires them to slow themselves down to our level.

Bow can outsmart me, so I have to stay on my toes

Many people treat chimpanzees as if they were disadvantaged and slightly backward human beings. Sometimes well meaning friends post a meme attributed to Jane Goodall that says chimpanzees are just like us except they don't have language, so we should be nice to them. I don't know if she really said that, but it's wrong. Chimpanzees do have language. Observers so far have not been able to decode it in the wild, because they are so much faster than we are. Just because a fieldworker does not understand the grammar the natives use does not prove that they have no grammar.

But I also disagree with the other part of the meme: that we should be "nice" to chimpanzees. I mean, I disagree with the condescending tone of that statement. Chimpanzees are not underprivileged minorities that we should make charitable donations to and pat on the head and give special privileged status to on account of their supposed disabilities. We should study them, get to know them, respect them and find ways to work cooperatively with them. But we should never underestimate their intelligence, their agility or their strength. Because just like us, they have ideas of their own, and not all their ideas are nicey-nice.


  1. It takes intelligence to be cunning and crafty, so I'm very interested in Bow's ability - maybe even more his thoughts about it that he keeps to himself - to outwit you. That he was able to discern that you were annoyed and even more - *why* you were annoyed does indicate intelligence.
    You are wise to not underestimate him, Aya. You certainly don't want to be caught 'flat-footed' with him!

    1. I am interested in Bow's thoughts that he keeps to himself, too, Kathy. Unfortunately, he's a better mind reader than I am! :)

  2. A lot of memes are not accurate, but people continue to repost these.

    1. Yes, that't true, Julia. Memes have become more a matter of propaganda than truth or accuracy.They are the latest form of billboard advertising.