When I tell people that my husband and I honeymooned at a chimpanzee habitat—the home of Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language (ASL)—the reactions fall into two camps:
Seriously. What did you really do for a honeymoon?
When can I go?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Washoe (who, sadly, died a few years ago) and her human caretaker, scientist Roger Fouts, ever since I read How Dogs Love Us (New Harvest), a new book by neuroscientist Gregory Berns. Berns trained his dog Callie, and a dozen other dogs, to stand perfectly still in an MRI machine. (Hot dogs and earmuffs were involved.) The goal was to see if the dogs’ brain centers lit up with emotions in the same way humans’ did.
Spoiler alert: they did.
Berns suggests that his MRI evidence could and should be the catalyst for treating dogs and other animals, particularly primates, more humanely. To treat them as if they are—to use the title of Roger Fouts’s book—our Next of Kin.
I don’t think an MRI will convince someone who doesn’t like dogs to believe anything good about them, let alone to treat them better. That’s not the way rewiring works—at least, it wasn’t the way it worked with me.
I was terrified of dogs growing up, and I hated them until I was in my late 20s. On orders from my canine-fearing father, we had no dogs in our house. I crossed the street when I spotted one, and held my breath and sweated through my clothes when I couldn’t avoid them. I don’t think seeing a brain scan—or even a video of cute dogs lured into MRI machines with hot dogs—would have done a thing to change me.
The first dog I ever liked was Odie, the chunky black and white beagle my mother adopted after my father’s death. Together with my sisters, I had encouraged my mother to get a dog, but I hadn’t really thought it through. Suddenly, visiting my mother meant being around a dog. I was a nervous wreck. Odie hunted mice, destroyed Oriental rugs, and jumped on tables, all to my mother’s delight. In his swagger, Odie reminded me a little of the tennis player John McEnroe.
My mother loves John McEnroe.
Something—or someone—had to give.
You know those people who say dogs can smell your fear? They are full of it. Sometimes, Odie would lie in wait for me, just inside the front door, paws and belly to the sky, ready for some serious petting and unbothered when I ignored him the first or the fifth or the fifteenth time. He wore me down, just like a persistent boyfriend in a romantic comedy. Eventually, to humor him, I reached out and patted that fur moon of a belly.
And in the seconds that followed that touch, it’s what didn’t happen that changed me: Odie didn’t bite me. He barely moved. And then he sighed.
And my fear ebbed just enough to let him in.
Many years later, my husband and I adopted a beagle/pit mix with a busted tooth and a ragged tail, I wrote a pet health book called My Fat Dog, and I became that lady who just has to pet your dog, no matter the size or the snarl.
Which brings me back to Roger Fouts.
Fouts didn’t apply for the job to teach Washoe ASL because he knew, or cared, about chimps. He was just a graduate student who needed to buy groceries and pay his rent. Fouts bungled the interview and was told even before he left that he had blown it.
But Washoe had other plans. When she saw Fouts leaving, she raced to catch up with him…and landed in his arms.
And Fouts held her and never let her go.