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January 9, 1979: Washoe Gives Birth to Sequoyah

Adapted from Chapter 9 of Next of Kin, by Roger Fouts with Stephen Tukel Mills (pp. 221-222; 226-232).

In June of 1978, Washoe's pregnancy test came up positive. I had the lab techs run it twice just to be sure. Then I sent the results off to the National Science Foundation (NSF). A month later, the first installment of my three-year, $187,000 grant was on its way. That was good news. The money would not only finance the study, but would also give me some independence from Lemmon and protect Washoe's baby from any plans Lemmon might have for him or her. I also wanted to protect Washoe's partner, Ally, in the same manner, whether or not I found a sanctuary. Ally would be a part of my study because of his excellent command of signs and because he was most likely the father of Washoe's baby. With Washoe and Ally housed together, the newborn would have a family of chimpanzee signers to learn from.

I began taking regular walks with Washoe in the woods. I would fill my pockets with apples, dried fruit, and the other treats that she loved. Once in the woods, I would take off her lead so that she was free to climb trees. Later in her pregnancy, she preferred to just sit and relax under the trees. During these quiet times she would begin grooming me, picking through my hair and ears, and I would return the favor by grooming her arms, shoulders, and back.

There was no question that Washoe knew she was pregnant again.

BABY, BABY, she answered, cradling her arms in front of her.

I decided to build the birthing cage myself with five thousand dollars from my NSF grant. I designed the cage and sent it out for bid. But again Lemmon out maneuvered me. My NSF funds were held by the university, and Lemmon strong-armed the provost, a former student of his, into giving him the five thousand dollars. Lemmon threw out my design and started building the cage himself after New Year's. But it was too late.

At 7 A.M. on January 8, Debbi got a call from the main colony. A member of our team noticed blood mixed with water on the floor of Washoe's cage. Her water had broken, and she was in labor. I immediately rushed over to stay with her.

In the wild, a female chimpanzee wanders away from her group to bear her child in the privacy and seclusion of the jungle. This need for privacy is so intense that, even in captivity, chimpanzee birthing is shrouded in mystery. Lab workers often don't even notice that a chimp is pregnant. They walk in one morning and discover a new infant in the cage. Female chimps will wait for a lab technician to leave the room before they go into labor. Washoe had no chance of enjoying even this momentary privacy. She would be giving birth in a small five-foot-by-six-foot cage, next to a larger enclosure holding the main colony's twenty-five highly aroused and screaming chimps.

COME HUG, Washoe signed when I arrived at her cage.

Once her labor began, my concerns about her lack of privacy quickly vanished. She appeared to click into an altered state that was far removed from me and everything around her. She knew exactly what to do as she assumed various positions to ease the pain and advance the labor.

In the wild, chimpanzee labor usually lasts for only one to two hours. But with the noise and cage banging next door, Washoe's labor dragged on. After four grueling hours, at 11:57 AM, Washoe got into a tripedal stance, holding one hand behind and below her. Then she deftly delivered her infant into her waiting hand. Immediately, she brought the baby to her chest, where she greeted it chimpanzee-style by panting heavily with her mouth over its mouth.

Washoe began grooming the baby's ear. Only then did I notice that the baby's umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around its neck. Washoe's baby did not appear to be alive. Washoe held the unmoving infant to her chest, and made a nest for the two of them to lie on, using an old tire in her cage. She began to kiss and suck mucus from the baby's mouth and nasal passages. Then, she breathed into its mouth several times. I held my breath, but despite Washoe's excellent maternal instincts, her baby lay still and lifeless.

Washoe soon began eating the umbilical cord from around the infant's neck, relieving any possible suffocation. Minutes later, she delivered the equivalent of a doctor's slap by gently squeezing one of the baby's tiny fingers with her teeth. Suddenly, the infant squeaked. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. A few minutes later, Washoe delivered and ate the highly nutritional placenta. Although somewhat startling to watch, this act is common among mammals, including some human cultures, and seemed to flow naturally from Washoe's state of heightened maternal instinct.

I could see that her infant was still not clinging the way it should. Washoe kept grooming and giving the baby mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The infant grasped Washoe's hair briefly with one hand, but mostly it remained limp. Finally, after three hours, Washoe set the baby down, just as she had done with her first baby. This was not a good sign. In the wild a chimpanzee mother only puts down a dead infant. I made the same anguished decision and took Washoe's baby out of her cage. I could see that the baby was alive but clearly in distress and greatly weakened. As I held it close, I could also see that it was a boy.

When I got the baby to our house, I discovered he had a fever. Debbi and I stayed up most of the night hydrating him with fluids, and by the morning we had stabilized his temperature. We continued feeding him intravenously and through a bottle. We also named him Sequoyah, for the Oklahoma Indian chief who created the written language of the Cherokee people.

That afternoon we reintroduced Sequoyah to his mother. Washoe was very excited to see her infant, and she held him to her chest. But his nursing reflex was weak. Each time Washoe moved even slightly, he would dislodge from her nipple. This was not encouraging. If Sequoyah was too weak to nurse, then he would not survive. Once again I decided to take the infant from his mother so we could be sure he would be properly fed. But this time Washoe was not as accommodating. We had to anesthetize her to take her baby away.

I was now so determined that Sequoyah would be strong enough for nursing and clinging the next time we gave him back to Washoe that I decided to keep them apart for two weeks. We fed Sequoyah with human milk donated by local nursing mothers to help avoid any allergic reaction he might have to formula. We also used a different kind of nipple that made sucking more demanding in the hope that this would strengthen his nursing reflex.

We also had Washoe to think of. She was dispirited and I worried that her maternal instincts might lapse entirely during this separation. I gave her another infant chimp, Abendigo, on a foster basis. Abendigo was a two-year-old, no longer nursing, who had been living with his own mother until a week before. Washoe took to Abendigo immediately and spent most of her time holding the new baby.

After two weeks, I came up to Washoe's cage to tell her in sign that her own baby was coming back. She was very excited and started signing BABY repeatedly. I returned Abendigo to the main colony, then brought Sequoyah in to Washoe. She immediately held him and groomed his ears and face. But when he began to nurse, Washoe grimaced and moved her body away, dislodging him.

It was time for a heart-to-heart talk with Washoe about her nursing. I got in the cage and signed that she must feed her baby. Washoe refused to do so. Pretty soon my "counseling" session turned into a face-to-face screaming match, in the middle of which I noticed that Sequoyah had begun to root again. I quickly positioned his head so that he was on Washoe's nipple and was sucking. Washoe looked down at him, then glared at me and let out a deafening scream. I grabbed a Tootsie Pop from my back pocket and slapped it on her exposed tongue. Startled, she took the pop out of her mouth and looked down at Sequoyah, who was now nursing quite nicely. She made a move to dislodge him, but I reprimanded her with a mild "ah ah" and, finally, she settled down and allowed him to nurse. After about seven minutes, Sequoyah dozed off to sleep. A few hours later he attempted to nurse again. This time, all I had to do was look at Washoe sternly to stop her from dislodging her son. After that, they nursed without any problems.

By the time Sequoyah was one month old things were beginning to look up. Lemmon finally had Washoe's new and more spacious cage ready in the pig barn. On a cold morning in mid February we moved the entire family-Washoe, Ally, and Sequoyah-out of the main colony and into their new quarters.

It didn't take long for me to realize that Lemmon had built the new cage out of razor-sharp expanded metal instead of the safe chain link I had asked for. "Chimp-proof" is how he described this idiotic design-meaning that no chimp would dare try to unravel the sharp metal diamonds. My students and I immediately started hand-filing hundreds of deadly edges on the cage.

But there was no way we could get to all of them in time. The very first week Sequoyah cut his toe on one of the sharp edges. We applied topical treatments but his wound became infected, and he began growing even weaker. He could barely cling to his mother. As if that weren't enough, the propane heater in the pig barn ran out of fuel one night. Ordinarily, the lab techs told Lemmon when the fuel ran low, and he would order more. But this time, there was no new fuel forthcoming and the temperature in the barn dropped to 27 degrees Fahrenheit. The next morning, we found Washoe and Sequoyah huddled together in the cold.

Within days Sequoyah developed a serious respiratory illness, and Washoe stayed up until dawn for many nights, sucking mucus out of her baby's nose and mouth. Despite Washoe's diligent efforts at aspirating her son's nasal passages up to twenty times per hour, Sequoyah was deteriorating.

March 8, 1979: Sequoyah Dies

By March 8th Sequoyah's pneumonia was too severe for Washoe to cure, and once again we had to separate mother and child. When Washoe saw me coming with the needle and anesthetic, she started screaming at me and signing MY BABY, MY BABY. She knew right away that I was there "to knock her down." I rushed Sequoyah to the local community hospital in Norman, but the doctors refused to admit him. "No chimps allowed," they insisted. In desperation, Debbi and I created a makeshift infirmary in our dining room. Chimpanzees came to our house pretty regularly, but this visit was different and our kids, who were now three, eight, and eleven years old, knew right away that something was very wrong. Debbi and I couldn't hide our fear. All of us gathered around the dining room table where Washoe's son was resting, bundled in blankets. I held Sequoyah's tiny hand while I silently begged God to save his life.

Late that night I called our family pediatrician and friend, Dr. Richard Carlson, and asked him to come over and tell us what to do to bolster Sequoyah's strength. After examining Sequoyah, Carlson determined that the pneumonia was bacterial, and had probably migrated from the staph infection in his toe and had settled in his lungs. The baby was so weak that he could no longer cling or grasp, and the prognosis was grim. We put Sequoyah in a mist tent with a vaporizer and began giving him ampicillin. Carlson inserted a tube in Sequoyah's nose to help aspirate fluid. He stayed with the baby until 11 P.M. Then Debbi and I took over.

Sequoyah died the next afternoon, March 8th , at 4 P.M. Debbi, the kids, and I were numb with grief, hugging one another for comfort. It was hard to believe that this adorable infant, whose birth we had celebrated just two months earlier, was gone forever.

More than anything, I dreaded telling Washoe what had happened. Early the next morning I went to see her. As soon as she saw me coming, she raised her eyebrows and signed BABY? She held her cradled arms in place to emphasize the question. Leaning in toward her, with all of the sympathy I could express in my face, I cradled my arms and put my two hands out in front of me, left palm down, right palm up. Then very slowly, I rolled both hands over in the sign for death: BABY DEAD, BABY GONE, BABY FINISHED.

Washoe dropped her cradled arms to her lap. She moved over to a far corner and looked away, her eyes vacant. After sitting there for a while, I realized there was nothing more I could say or do.

Fouts, R. & Mills, S. T. (1997). Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees. New York: HarperCollins.

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