Mary Lee Jensvold


Sigma Xi promotes companionship among researchers so we highlight our members through the Meet Your Fellow Companion series. Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold has dedicated her career to studying communication in chimpanzees. She is an associate professor in the Anthropology Department and Primate Behavior and Ecology Program at Central Washington University. She is also a Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer. This year, she is on research leave at Fauna Foundation, an animal sanctuary near Montreal. She moved there to continue studying two chimps from CWU, Tatu and Loulis, who know American Sign Language. After they became the final two surviving chimps at CWU, Tatu and Loulis were moved to Fauna Foundation so they could be with other chimps. 

Transcript from Video:

Heather Thorstensen: Hello everybody, I am Heather Thorstensen. I’m the manager of communications for Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. We call our member spotlight series our Meet Your Fellow Companions series. Today for the series I’m talking with Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold.  
She is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department and the Primate Behavior and Ecology Program at Central Washington University. She is on a research leave this year at Fauna Foundation, which is a sanctuary for non-human primates and farm animals near Montreal. At the Fauna Foundation, she is the research and outreach consultant for Friends of Washoe. Friends of Washoe is a group dedicated to the lives of the surviving members of Washoe’s family, Tatu and Loulis, two chimpanzees that Mary Lee studies today. Friends of Washoe is also dedicated to communication and sign language studies with chimpanzees, and educating people about chimpanzees. She has worked with chimpanzees who communicate with sign language since 1986. She has a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from University of Nevada-Reno. She specializes in ethological studies of apes, animal intelligence, communication, language, and culture. She became a member of Sigma Xi in 2013. [She is also a Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer.]

Mary Lee, thank you for joining me on the hangout today. 

Mary Lee Jensvold: Hi, it’s a pleasure to be here. 

Can you start by explaining what sparked your interest in studying communication and studying chimpanzees in general?
The sign language studies with chimpanzees are really unique because they provide an opportunity to, in a certain sense, see inside the mind of another species. The sign language is a bridge between humans and non-humans. The chimps, not only do they sign to each other and to the humans around them, but they sign privately. It’s like a window into their mind. So, what sparked my interest was, you know, since high school I always thought studying our next of kin, so any kind of ape, was very interesting to me. And then when I learned about the sign language studies in the ‘70s, I just knew that’s what I wanted to do so I pursued it avidly. 

What is the reason that you came to the Fauna Foundation this year?
Over the years, Washoe’s family—originally there were five chimpanzees at Central Washington University, Washoe and Moja, Tatu, Dar, and Loulis—and over the years with attrition, Moja died in 2002, then Washoe 2007 and Dar died in 2013. At that point, we either had to bring new chimpanzees to Central Washington University or we had to find other chimpanzees for Tatu and Loulis to be with. Chimpanzees are incredible social species and it’s really important that they be in a highly social environment and it’s not that social just being with one individual. So Friends of Washoe, who were responsible for the care of Tatu and Loulis, began a search for a place for them to go because it wasn’t going to work to bring chimps to Central Washington University because they are in drastic budget cuts.

Fauna Foundation was the best place. Fauna Foundation already at the time had 11 other chimpanzees. One of them has since died. And those chimps come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are retired from biomedical research. There are two there that were cross fostered like Tatu and used in behavior studies here in Canada and then some came in from zoos. So it was going to be very easy for them to quickly meet other chimpanzees and get integrated into a social group, which has happened. 

I spent a year after they left doing research from afar and it’s really better facilitated here. And also, I’m working with Friends of Washoe and Fauna Foundation to develop internships. We had a lot of educational programs at Central Washington University and when the chimps left the institute closed and so a lot of educational opportunities were lost. So we’re recreating those here at Fauna Foundation. 

So your job at the Fauna Foundation is really a mixture of those education and outreach opportunities, but you’re also still doing your research and you’re doing some grant writing, is that right?
Yes, writing private grants, mostly for operating because Fauna Foundation and Friends of Washoe were both non-profit organizations. So, grant writing in that regard for operating funds. 
And then in terms of the outreach programs that I’m working with them on, we have a summer visiting intern program that will be an eight-week program. It’s geared towards primarily students that are mid-way through or they may be post-graduate. We had this program in Ellensburg at Central Washington University, it ran since 1995 and had hundreds of individuals all the way from rising sophomores in university to folks with PhDs already and many of those individuals returned to Central and participated to our graduate program there and many of them went on and were launched into other opportunities. So we’re creating a much smaller scale here. 

And also I’m working with McGill [University] to develop an intern program for the students of McGill to come and hopefully that will be launched in the fall. It’s looking very promising.

And then we’re expanding their volunteer program so that folks that are not necessarily academically oriented could also participate more widely so they help with really basic tasks.

And then, in the academic programs I think it’s important for one of the underlying premises of the decades of the research project with Washoe and her family was that caregivers and researchers blend seamlessly because how can you expect a chimpanzee to sign to you if you’re not a good friend? So much of what we do is teach humane husbandry practices at the same time we’re teaching non-invasive research practices as well. For example, this summer the participants will gain experience in basic observational skills such as recording where the chimps are spending their time. Fauna is a very diverse sanctuary. It has overhead tunnels and islands and inside areas. Well, how do the chimps use that, you know? You spend all this money making this beautiful island, but do the chimps really use it? Is it worth it? So the visiting interns this summer will participate in data collection for that. And they’ll also participate in making meals and enrichment and they’ll get to clean enclosures and all of the things that go with husbandry. I think it’s really important that individuals learn to wear both hats so they’ll gain that experience and it’s nice to have folks that can dedicate that much time to do that. So those are the kinds of outreach programs. 

And then I think the third part of your question was about research. My research now, I have graduate students at Central Washington University, so I had about five of them come here. One collected thesis data looking at the effects of positive reinforcement training on the chimpanzees in terms of their behaviors and then I, myself, have been systemically recording Tatu and Loulis for the time of their transition. So, how has their behavior changed? They were rather withdrawn, they seemed to me to be pretty withdrawn before they left Ellensburg after the death of Dar ...  

Actually, one of the graduate students for her thesis has looked at the activity budgets in several periods of time. It looks like their behavior is—they are much more social here. 

And then the other most interesting thing is the signing. What will happen? Tatu and Loulis have always been in an environment surrounded by signing chimpanzees. The question was what will happen when they meet chimps that don’t sign? They didn’t know there was such a thing until they arrived at Fauna. And so I am looking at the frequency of the signing to see whether the chimp–to–chimp signing is maintained or dropping off. And also the interesting aspect of that is we know that chimps adjust to their conversational partners and so they also have primarily been surrounded by human caregivers that know sign language. We required everyone to know sign language and that’s not a requirement at Fauna Foundation. So we have some folks that do know ASL [American Sign Language] and some that don’t. How do the chimps adjust to those individuals? I’m recording information in that regard as well. 

Loulis was the first non-human who learned a human language from another non-human. He learned it from other chimpanzees. Is the idea that maybe he will teach some sign language to the other chimpanzees?
The difference is the nature of the relationship. Loulis was 10 months old, adopted by Washoe. No human signed in his presence, except for a very few signs and then he learned from Washoe. He doesn’t have that father-son relationship going here. There are other adult chimpanzees. My guess would be more that the other chimps may wonder “wow.” They do, I can just tell you anecdotally, they’ll watch. I’ll be having a conversation with Tatu and you can see other chimps are watching and it’s like, “what are you all doing? And what are you saying?” Whether they’ll make the connection that if Tatu does this enough times [Mary Lee signs for banana] she gets a banana, that’s kind of an interesting question. And they’ve been here now almost a year and a half and, I don’t know. We’re still watching to see what will happen. But I wouldn’t expect the interaction to be like Washoe and Loulis but more sort of wondering, “wow.” 

Along the lines— Irene Pepperberg works with parrots—and the way that new parrots have learned is by observing the interaction between another parrot and a human. And they sort of engage in that kind of interaction. 

What has surprised you the most out of the research that you’ve done with studying chimpanzees and their communication with each other?
I’ve been doing this for so long, I’m never really surprised. I’m always just amazed. But in all of the studies that have been done, looking at aspects of their sign language usually people just talk about vocabulary size. But we can talk about my language, whatever language is, right? It’s so difficult to define. But if you just talked about vocabulary size that is a very limiting kind of a definition. So we can look at other kinds of things: grammatical techniques of American Sign Language, they use those, they modulate their signs.

But then the other thing that they really, really do well is the whole pragmatic aspect of sign language. In the interaction, we use words and we use grammar and those kinds of things but it’s seeded in a context of pragmatics of this social interaction. There’s this study in non-verbal behavior, you study all about the aspects of this interaction: how it’s regulated by shifts in our eye gaze, pauses, starts, stops, change in vocal intonation, got to get a topic started, how do you maintain that topic? Sometimes you have breakdowns in the interaction, misunderstandings, how do you repair those and move through the interaction? And when we look at those kinds of behaviors in the chimps’ interactions they really excel. They do fantastic. 

And when I start to put the pieces together, you’ve got this critter that is so highly social. In the wild, they live in communities with complex relationships, they gesture to each other in the wild. Now we’re finding that each community has its own repertoire of gestures and they even have dialects in those gestures. And so I guess when you look at it full circle, it’s not surprising that they’re good at this social aspect because they’re such social beings. But it is nice to see that reflection there. That, to me, is one of the most interesting things. 

And then the other thing that was so interesting as I had children and, you know, the conversations with the chimps are so reminiscent. Tatu will be flipping through a magazine and then get my attention and sign about the pictures that are in the magazine, and so the ways that their using it. The research is so often misconceived that the chimps are just begging for food and using it in that way and they’re not. That’s certainly part of it, especially when we keep them in these dependent sort of situations inside of cages but they also use their signs to comment on the world and tell us about their world and how they perceive it. And so that’s always fascinating.

What are the goals of your research into chimpanzee communication? I know a lot of your research is building off previous studies about human children development and their communication. Is that something that you’re trying to bridge the gap with our understanding about?
Well originally when Allen and Trixie Gardner did the cross fostering projects  [in which humans raised chimpanzees]  they were looking at the acquisition of sign language as the chimps were developing. And then the focus in the ‘80s and the ‘90s shifted more to how they were using their signs: the chimp–to–chimp, private signing, and then in the face–to–face interactions. We can continue to look at those. The end goal is about understanding communication. 

And also the more that I—I’m not alone in this—the more that I understand what complex, sentient beings chimpanzees and other apes are and we look at the things that we’re doing to them—keeping them in captivity and the various ways that they’re utilized and exploited in captivity— [it] really starts raising ethical issues. I didn’t get into this because of ethics. I got into it because I was just really interested in understanding about the mind of another species and how they perceive their world and then as I began to understand that, I realized how horrifying and awful, and there are actually chimps at Fauna that suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from their days in biomedical research. 

So then you get into this dilemma: what are we going to do? My research has focused some on “alright, we can’t let them out. We can’t send them back to Africa. We’re stuck with this situation. How are we going to make their life and their condition better?” And I firmly believe because they’re such social beings that the crux of it is to make sure that they are in a positive social environment and their world is terrifically affected by the caregivers that are around them. 

I have done a number of studies looking at the interactions between the caregivers and the chimps, primarily focusing on communication aspects of it and so getting that information out and trying to—I think it’s important for other organizations that have captive chimps to understand that as well. So that, to me, is a way to give back because chimps have given so much to our understanding of their species and our own species. I think it’s really important to give back to them. If my research can help us understand chimps better and develop better ways to promote their wellbeing while they’re in captivity then I feel successful in my goal. That’s my goal. 

What does the future hold for Tatu and Loulis?
Well, they are both approaching being elderly. Loulis is in his mid-30s and the average age of death for captive, male chimpanzees is 32. Tatu, I think she’s 39, and so females live a little bit longer than males in captivity but not a whole lot. I think it’s important for us to learn as much as we can. I do feel this sense of urgency and they, as long as they’re at Fauna, for them it’s…they have new friends. They haven’t met all the other chimps that are here at Fauna so they’re making new friends. It’s a slow process, introducing chimps to each other.

And then they have not explored all of the facility so that’s something that they have to look forward to. Really, just making sure that they’re comfortable and well cared for and have a good social environment, in terms of chimps and humans, for the remainder of their lives, which who knows how long that will be. It could be decades but probably not plural on that. Probably by 15 years they’d both be gone, I would think, if not sooner. 

Thank you for talking with us today.

Picture: Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold with chimpanzees Tatu, sitting on the tire, and Louis, left. The chimps communicate with Jensvold by using American Sign Language. (Image courtesy of Mary Lee Jensvold)