The first chimpanzee to learn sign language passed away earlier this week. Washoe (along with three other chimpanzees who also sign) had lived on the CWU campus in Ellensburg since the early 1980s. She was 42 years old.
I had the opportunity to see Washoe and the other chimpanzees signing, many years ago now. I took psychology 101 my very first quarter of college, and attended a "Chimposium" as part of the class. I remember thinking how amazing it was to see an animal not only understanding receptive communication, but also able to use expressive communication in return. Humans are "wired" for language right? It's what separates us from animals--yet here were some able to learn and use ASL in context. When Washoe died, one of the other chimps signed "hurt." And they taught each other--Washoe was also the first chimpanzee to teach ASL signs to her adopted son.
I never would have imagined ASL would become important later on in my life, or how it would feel to see a similar progression of communication with my son, who faces barriers of his own to learning language.
If you would like to read more about Washoe's life, here is the address for an article: http://www.spokesmanreview.com/breaking/story.asp?ID=12331