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Conference Explores Mental Abilities of the Chimp

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Conference Explores Mental Abilities of the Chimp

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Conference Explores Mental Abilities of the Chimp

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Hundreds of scientists from around the world including Jane Goodall are attending the "Mind of the Chimpanzee" conference in Chicago this weekend. It's being billed as the first major conference to discuss the mental capabilities of chimpanzees.

Thirty researchers are presenting their work on how chimps think, including evidence of empathy, cooperative problem solving, and the ability to deceive others. Elizabeth Lonsdorf is director of the Fisher Center at the Lincoln Park Zoo and one of the conference organizers, and joins us on the line now.

According to this latest research, how well did chimps understand what other chimps know, feel and perceive?

Dr. ELIZABETH LONSDORF (Director, Fisher Center, Lincoln Park Zoo): Well, the simple, short answer is we still don't know, but the more detailed answer is they know and understand a lot more than ever been previously credited with.

ELLIOTT: Can you tell us a little bit about Knuckles?

Dr. LONSDORF: Yes. Knuckles is a chimpanzee who lives at a sanctuary in Florida, and he has cerebral palsy. And one of the interesting things that was reported at this meeting by researchers there was that Knuckles, despite the fact that he behaves rather strangely, the other chimpanzees are quite accepting of him. I mean, he is kind of awkward in his movements because of the cerebral palsy that he has.

And typically, any chimpanzee behaving strangely, specially in the wild, would either be abandoned or kind of potentially attacked by the members of his community. But the members of Knuckles' community accepts that there's something different about him, and they don't ostracize him for his differences. They actually seem to empathize with him that he has some difficulty and they let him get free passes because of that.

ELLIOTT: Now, researchers have also found evidence of chimp deception?

Dr. LONSDORF: Yes, and deception really - if you think about the mental processes that it takes to do that, you have to know what another individual is thinking is the truth, and you have to actively decide to do something to counter that truth. So that's a pretty complex set of mental processes.

I can give you an example. Jane Goodall tells this story, it's from the field. In the early days of her study, when she was doing banana feedings, a bucket of bananas would be brought up to the feeding station and a chimpanzee would come in, screaming excitedly that the bananas were there, and that would bring all the other chimpanzees in. Then that first chimpanzee would have to share his bananas.

But one chimpanzee quickly learned. He walked into the feeding station by himself and saw that there was bananas there. He would run the other way, making all of those excited food calls to draw the group to somewhere else...

ELLIOTT: Oh.

Dr. LONSDORF: ...and he would sneak back to get the bananas.

ELLIOTT: Very sneaky.

Dr. LONSDORF: Yes.

ELLIOTT: Jane Goodall is an important speaker at your conference. What is influence on this research?

Dr. LONSDORF: Oh, she has influenced all of this research. From the research we do here at Lincoln Park Zoo to the research that everybody does in the field, of the 30 presentations, I think probably 25 at the conference started with -and since we know from Goodall, I mean, she observed the first of almost all things that we are all interested in studying. So she played a major role.

ELLIOTT: Elizabeth Lonsdorf is the director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. She helped organize this weekend's conference.

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