World's first 'talking' chimps find sanctuary near Montreal

Tatu and Loulis, two chimpanzees who made history for learning to communicate using American Sign Language, are settling into their new home at the Fauna Foundation sanctuary on Montreal's South Shore.

Tatu and Loulis made history learning American Sign Language

Signing chimps retire in Quebec

10 years ago
Duration 1:47
Featured VideoTatu and Loulis, among the first chimps to learn American Sign Language, now live at the Fauna Foundation on Montreal's South Shore.

Two chimpanzees who made history for learning to communicate using American Sign Language are settling into their new home at the Fauna Foundation sanctuary on Montreal's South Shore.

Tatu and Loulis were moved from the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) — the research facility at Central Washington University where they lived for more than three decades — to the Quebec sanctuary five weeks ago.

Gloria Grow, the founder of the Fauna Foundation chimpanzee sanctuary on Montreal's South Shore, says she first met Tatu, behind her, in 1995. (CBC)

Tatu, 37, was born at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma and was moved to the CHCI in 1981. She is one of the first chimpanzees to become proficient in American Sign Language, along with Loulis' adoptive mother, Washoe.

Loulis, 35, acquired sign language from Washoe, learning his first sign after only eight days in her presence —​ making him a star in his own right.

"He is the first non-human to acquire a human language from another non-human, which makes him very, very special," said Meg Mas, a caregiver at the sanctuary. "He seems to know that."

Pair needed chimp companionship

The special research facility in Washington was built for the five chimpanzees in 1993. However, over the past decade, the three other chimps they lived with died, leaving Tatu and Loulis alone.

"It was critical that they either join other chimpanzees or have other chimps joins them, so that they didn't live the rest of their lives [as] just two and then eventually just one, which is not right for chimpanzees," said Gloria Grow, the founder of the Fauna Foundation.

For Grow, bringing the signing chimpanzees to her sanctuary closes a circle, because she met them at CHCI in 1995 when she was first learning about chimpanzees and went to find out about the non-invasive research being conducted there.

"They are the chimps who inspired me to do what I'm doing — to start the sanctuary," said Grow.

She said the transition to a new home has not been an easy one.

"The first week was pretty difficult. Tatu was hiding under her blanket and wanted to get out. She wanted to go home," said Grow. "That would be normal. What did we expect?"

Now, five weeks later, the pair is settling in, with the help of interpreters the chimps know, sent by a group called Friends of Washoe.

"My hope for them is that they find new friends, new relationships and new social groups and get to explore that," said Grow, "that they become amazing retired individuals who love their new home."