Bonnie Hendrickson Q&A


Bonnie and Loulis in 1998. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Hendrickson

Brittany Cinderella

Bonnie Hendrickson graduated from CWU in 1999 with a masters in experimental psychology. She also worked with chimpanzees in the CHCI on campus until September 2013. She currently works as a scheduling coordinator in the SURC.

What was the purpose of the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute?

In 1980 Roger & Debbi Fouts came to CWU seeking sanctuary for five chimpanzees, Washoe, Moja, Tatu, Dar and Loulis. Washoe was the first non-human to learn a human language, American Sign Language (ASL). Moja, Tatu and Dar were part of a second project to learn ASL. Loulis was adopted by Washoe and learned ASL from his family, not humans.

That was all ground-breaking research in its day but that was not Roger and Debbi’s purpose. They set up a home on the 3rd floor of the Psychology Building and began a program that taught ethical care for captive chimpanzees and by extension all animals. The ultimate goal was to end the exploitation of chimpanzees.

The program advocated for chimpanzees in captivity. They fought to stop the capture of wild chimpanzees and the breeding of chimpanzees for research & entertainment. They also lobbied to re-classify captive chimpanzees as an endangered species instead of threatened, an accomplishment that provided more protections for captive chimpanzees. It was their goal to change a mindset, to help others see chimpanzees as intelligent emotional beings deserving rights and freedom like us.

By 1993 they had raised enough money to build the CHCI. It provided the chimpanzees a healthier, more comfortable living environment with large open areas that incorporated species-specific features such as climbing structures and room to brachiate (swing). Here they had more room, more options and sunshine.

What was your official job working with the chimpanzees?

I was first a graduate student at CHCI from 1996 to 1999 and received my Masters there. In 2011 I returned as Associate Director when the Fouts retired. In 2013 the program was closed by the university and the two remaining chimpanzees Tatu and Loulis were moved to Fauna Foundation in Montreal.

 What was it like having chimpanzees on CWU campus?

That’s a hard question. To quote Dr. Fouts, working with chimpanzees is bittersweet. While it was a great privilege to work for Washoe’s family and it was definitely a life-changing experience, I was caring for individuals who were in prison due to no fault of their own. They lost their rights and freedoms to choose even the most basic things in life, right down to what and when to eat. They understood they were in prison. Tatu would sign “key” and point to the locks on the doors. They would ask to go out of their enclosure and point to the environment outside of their limited world. Moments like that were heartbreaking. To compensate we would work very hard to give them as many opportunities to make choices and experience new things as we could.

For the students on campus and the community I think it was fun to hear the pant hoots and watch the chimpanzees in their outdoor enclosure watching back. CWU received international attention for Washoe’s contribution. Visitors from around the world, from classes on campus and from local schools all came to visit the chimps through Chimposiums, an hour visitation program with 30 minutes of education and 30 minutes of visiting Washoe’s family from an observation room. Literally thousands of people visited CHCI every year bringing business to the city. International and out of state students came to Central to be a part of the program. The chimpanzees brought a lot to Central and Ellensburg.

Which of the chimpanzees was your favorite chimpanzee to work with?

 I loved working with all of them. They were very unique personalities, so I had a different relationship with each one. Dar and Loulis loved to play games and chase. Tatu loved challenges and looking through magazines. Moja was the girly-girl who loved to dress up and brush her hair. I believe though that I had a particularly strong friendship with Washoe from the very beginning. Washoe was the matriarch and I was an older non-trad student. I think she saw me as a kindred spirit. While all the youngsters were running around, we would have those grown-up moments just sitting near each other and enjoying the calm quiet company.

What would you say was your favorite memory working for the CHCI?

Chimpanzees are very territorial and you have to earn their trust. My first day at CHCI I was stationed in an observation area with a fence between me and the chimpanzees. My instructions were don’t stare, don’t react, look down and pretend all is well. So that’s what I did as Dar and Loulis hazed me, tested me. As I sat quietly, they banged, they screamed, they spit – they worked very hard to be intimidating. And to be honest, they were very good. My first time up close with chimpanzees and I have to admit I was in awe and a little anxious. But then it suddenly got quiet. Dead quiet. I was afraid to look up. I waited a moment and then decided I needed to make sure everyone was ok. So with a healthy amount of trepidation, I peeked. The boys were gone and Washoe was standing there looking at me. She looked me in the eyes and then calmly walked away. From that moment on the boys accepted me and I had formed an extraordinary bond with Washoe.

 What aspects of your experience with the CHCI have helped you with your current career?

CHCI required an unwavering attitude of service. In everything we did the chimpanzees came first. Their best interests were at the center of all decisions, policies and actions. That attitude has stayed with me even in my work now. I try to put the students’ best interests at the heart of what we do.

One more memory to share (although I have so many). I had taken a friend to a Chimposium and was in the group of visitors in the observation area. The chimpanzees noticed me and wanted my attention. When the Chimposium leader asked Tatu who I was, she signed Friend. I will be forever grateful.