Dar, the chimpanzee who used American Sign Language, knew the word for "hurt." Yet he didn't use it to indicate he was sick over the past few weeks. So it came as a shock on Saturday morning when a caretaker walked into the Central Washington University facility where Dar lived and found the 36-year chimpanzee lying on the ground unconscious.
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"It was very sudden," says Mary Lee Jensvold, director of CWU's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute.Over the past few days, there's been an outpouring of grief on the institute's Facebook page. In the 27 years that Dar had been at the research facility, where he lived among a family of chimps who had been taught sign language, thousands of visitors had passed through. "He was a gentle giant," writes one mourner on the page.
It took a while to get to know Dar, says Jensvold. "He was a little bit more reserved than the others." But, she adds, "once a person, got to know him, Dar was a really good friend."
Yes, that's right a friend. Among the 200 to250 words in his vocabulary was the word "hug." When he wanted one, Jensvold says, Dar would let you know. He could also tell you if he was sad.
And he was observant. On a website affiliated with the institute, a woman who worked with Dar named Rozasika Steele, who is pregnant, describes an exchange she had with him recently.
Two weeks ago when I was interacting with Dar I signed WHAT THAT? pointing to my belly that is just starting to pop out. Dar replied BOY. I asked WHO IN THERE? and Dar signed BABY.
Like any good friend, he also noticed the little things. Jensvold recalls a recent conversation in which Dar commented on a new sweater and pair of shoes she was wearing. To Dar's eyes, the sweater looked like a blanket.
Dar's most salient quality, however, was his playfulness, according to Jensvold. "He always wanted to play a game of chase," she says. "Dar would kind of like fake you out head in the other direction."
Jensvold, who saw Dar every day for the past 27 years, says she's been shaken up by his death. She is planning a memorial service to be held soon.