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Dan Musgrave | Longreads | May 4, 2023 | 21 minutes (6,022 words)

I had been volunteering at the ape house for four months before I was invited to meet Nathan. It was December and I’d just spent my first Christmas with the apes. Everyone but the director and I had left for the day. The night sky spilled over the glass-ceilinged, central atrium we called the greenhouse. Despite the snow outside, the greenhouse air was warm and ample. Moving toward the padlocked cage door, I felt light, as if I was about to float up into that dotted black expanse above me, rather than enter a room I’d cleaned feces and orange peels out of hours earlier.

I juggled my keys and the offering I’d brought with me — a tub of yogurt, a couple of bananas, Gatorade, and some blankets. With the two padlocks removed, I entered, sat, and arranged the gifts in an arc around me. Even though I was planted firmly on the glazed concrete floor, I swayed.

In the adjacent room, watching everything I did through the glass portion of a mechanical sliding door, was Nathan. Five years old to my 21. He was stout, wide-shouldered, with thick muscled arms, but almost twiggy legs. Nathan was, simply put, a cool little dude. We studied one another as we waited for my supervisor to turn the key and remove the barrier between us. His eyes were as big and soft as three-quarter moons, always holding a question. Though, more often than not, that question was really a dare.

Sitting in the greenhouse, everything in the world was in alignment. It was right that Nathan would be the first ape I ever truly met. While the adult males still made crashing displays of warning at me, and the adult females mostly ignored me or found me to be a mildly useful, but mostly superfluous, component of the building, Nathan had always welcomed me warmly. I was a new playmate, willing to run back and forth along his enclosure in games of chase, over-eager to please.

A racking ka-chunk filled the greenhouse as the mechanical door separating us was activated. It rocked and then jerked to the side in its steel track. The doors had been created for use in prisons, originally, and they were always jamming on us. The third or fourth time we called a repairman out, he’d said we needed to take it easier on them — they hadn’t been designed to open so often.

My breath stilled. I saw Nathan behind the door, then I saw the night sky. Nothing in between. I was on my back like some upturned turtle, my legs still crossed but now pointed at the stars. He was a heat-seeking missile. The impressions of both his feet were on my chest; the last breath I’d taken in a Homo-centric world evicted from my lungs. When I levered my body upright, I saw him waiting, peering at me from a foot or so away, head cocked. The air that rushed back into me was sweeter, lighter, than what had been there before.

“Hi,” I said, grinning.

I guess I passed the test. He plopped himself in the bowl of my still-crossed legs, plucked the lid from the yogurt, and began to pour the thickness down his throat. He peeped contentedly and put his spare hand around the back of my neck. Where everything had been so fast that I couldn’t take it in seconds before, now time was suspended. He smelled so clean, like construction paper and newly fallen leaves. We sat there, me running my fingers through the hair of his back, he slurping yogurt. Eventually, he pulled the blankets into a corner to construct his night nest. The director told me that meant it was bedtime. I told Nathan goodnight and we parted for the evening. 

I’d initially applied to the ape house because I believed in their stated scientific mission: to communicate across the species boundary and illuminate the nonhuman and human mind. I had been one of those children at the zoo that try to make the right sound to get the animals to speak back. Now I was that kind of adult.

Not long after meeting and warming to the eight bonobos who were essentially my bosses, the science became much more personal. I was having trouble at college. My small rural campus felt like my cage. Though the school marketed itself as a home for outcasts looking for their place, I never felt entirely welcome there. I was shy and anxious to the level of needing therapy and medication (not receiving either), but I looked like a jock. When I did venture beyond my dorm room on weekends, I usually drank until I could approach and socialize with others (read: too much). 

In the ape house, amongst the bonobos, I found the refuge my alma mater had promised to be. There, nothing rested on my ability to wrench words from my throat in front of my peers. In fact, my trend toward quiet was an asset while my athleticism was less intimidating than it was an invitation to play. For the first month, I tentatively hoped that the apes would have me. But after that month, had the humans offered me a room in one of the unused enclosures, I would have abandoned my degree and moved in with relief.

I saw Nathan behind the door, then I saw the night sky. Nothing in between. I was on my back like some upturned turtle, my legs still crossed but now pointed at the stars.

In my first weeks there, I asked my supervisor for tips on how to interact with them. “Just treat them like you treat me,” she said. “Speak to them, not about them. Assume they’re listening and can understand. They are and they can. These are people in nonhuman bodies and they know it.” I could handle that. I was familiar with the fallacy that bodies accurately matched the selves they contained.

Likewise, it was comforting to be a part of a project that sought the person in the ape, to whatever degree it was present, rather than force the transformation. My research into the field showed that other ape language experiments had not been so accepting or accommodating. In the majority, the test subjects were taken from their mothers as infants and placed in human homes or labs. This was considered scientific. Rigorous. Rearing was the independent variable. To allow these subjects to remain with their birth families would be a confound.

While that December evening was my first time crossing the divide between Pan and Homo, Nathan had already been doing it for years. He was the third generation and fourth individual entrant into this ape language experiment. His upbringing was unusually casual for an experimental subject, and he spent nearly equal time with both his ape and human family. On a cultural spectrum from wild-caught bonobo (his grandmother and father), to human-reared language apes (his mother and brother), to human experimenter, Nathan sat exactly at the midpoint. He was the fulcrum upon which worlds balanced. The hope for him was that, under the direct tutelage of his mother, and with frequent but unstructured interactions with humans, he would show just how self-sustaining ape symbol use could be across generations. The avoidance of structure was the scientific methodology.

As poetic as I found it that Nathan was my point of first contact, he was simply the logical choice. He was small enough to handle — even if he was already stronger than me — and young enough that it was unlikely he’d attack should I misstep. Culturally, he was also optimally situated to understand my inexperience. He was an interpreter, an emissary. He was my bridge into the ape world.

I got no more training for being with Nathan than that first night. For every meeting thereafter, the only suggestion the director gave me was that I should always use the symbols — easily quantified, discrete images. One per word. There were nouns, verbs, and even references to abstract concepts like time and feelings. The director thought maybe Nathan would help me learn them faster.

It seemed, at the time, that the only complication in Nathan’s life was his big brother, Star, who was so perfect it was offensive. Star was irritatingly handsome, with a smile that smoothed over any and every slight. He spit on me daily but blew kisses to all the female staff. Like many beautiful people, he was given credit for being smarter than he actually was and better behaved than he ever cared to be. Star’s shadow was long and hard to escape. So, if Star showed an interest or proclivity for anything, Nathan either dismissed the activity outright or tried to do it harder/faster/better/stronger than anyone had ever done it before. The symbols were one of these things.

Nathan used the symbols like my father uses text messages, infrequently, out of the blue, and with suspicious competency. I often caught Nathan in the corner of a room, his back to the door, symbol board in his lap. He’d be touching it, talking to himself. Thinking out loud, as it were. Other times, he’d saddle up before one of the touch-screen computer stations containing digital versions of the symbol board and rattle off a string of 20 or 30 symbols so fast the computer got bogged down in its processing and lagged in displaying them. I suspected he always meant exactly what he said, though I had no way of scientifically confirming this.

We ended up with a routine. I pretended that we were part of the experiment, doing important research, and he pretended not to understand what I was saying. A normal conversation between us using the symbols would look something like this:


Nathan somersaults into my lap, right over the symbol board.

Me (after extracting the board from under him): WANT FOOD, QUESTION?

Nathan pushes the board away. Hops up and runs away after biting me on my forearm. Playfully, but not without pain.


Nathan approaches, holds my gaze from under his robust brow. I put the symbol board on the floor between us. He gestures, finger crooked, knuckle between his teeth. [Bite.]

Me: “Nathan, can you use the keyboard please?” 

Nathan, hand snapping out: CHASE.

He springs away at full speed, a single fart helping propel him away down the hallway. 

Me, following: “Okay, but no fair using rocket boosters.”

He smelled so clean, like construction paper and newly fallen leaves. We sat there, me running my fingers through the hair of his back, he slurping yogurt.

I wasn’t as diligent with the keyboard as I could have been, in part because I never had difficulty simply talking to him. In terms of receptive, rather than productive, competence, Nathan could handle it all. The rub was that he only listened when he felt like it. I often talked to him as I would any other person, except I was more honest and open. I started, genuinely, to consider Nathan one of my best friends.

He helped me work with the other apes, too. I would lay out maneuvers for shifting the apes between rooms and he would facilitate. He’d lead his family, including his grandmother, Worry, and his half-brother, Momo, through the door I’d indicated, then slip back through at the last moment, separating them in the new room while he and I got space to interact. 

Me: “Okay, here’s the plan. Nathan, I want Worry and Momo to go to the greenhouse, but I want you to stay here so we can see each other and tickle and chase. Can you help me get them to move and you can stay here?”

Nathan peeps excitedly, and Worry and Momo echo him.

Me: “They will have really good blueberries and lettuce and Gatorade in the greenhouse. We can have some surprises over here. Ready to help me move them? Okay, here we go.”

Nathan sits by the door to the greenhouse, enthusiastic. He peeps to get the others interested. I operate the door and the others follow him into the transfer space between rooms. I start to close the door. At the last moment, Nathan slides through and sits alone in the room.

Me: “Nathan you did it. Great work, man.”

Nathan runs to the mesh for a tummy tickle.

This went both ways, as the other apes used his skills, too. It was hell on data collection. I can’t even count the number of times he ruined an experimental session because the non-language bonobos would drag him to the computer by the hand and wait while he performed their sets. He’d tap at the screen while they sat at the reward dispenser eating fruit chunk after fruit chunk produced for his correct answers.

One afternoon, after we had become full partners in crime, Nathan and I lounged in a pocket of space between the roof of the walk-in fridge and the kitchen ceiling. Sunlight floated lazily through the kitchen windows, warming the stainless steel of the countertops and cabinets, making the room toasty and our eyelids heavy. It was late spring, months since we’d first met, though it felt longer. Something about being with the apes made time less distinct.

When it was me and Nathan together, I could forget I was an employee and Nathan essentially my work. Our relationship had grown through months of one-on-one encounters. With each visit, we gained new privileges until there was hardly an inch of the building not available to us, so long as it wasn’t occupied. It could just be me and my friend. He, a boy, and me, his cool but slightly irresponsible guardian. Gone were my problems at college. Gone were the impenetrable complexities of human relationships. My anxiety around humans was inversely proportional to my comfort in the cage with the bonobos. Apes made so much more sense to me, Nathan most of all. It eventually got to the point where I stopped going to school, seven credits short of a degree, to work with the apes full-time.

Nathan used the symbols like my father uses text messages, infrequently, out of the blue, and with suspicious competency. 

Between us in our nest atop the fridge was a pile of empty Diet Coke bottles, Go-GURT tubes, and half a bag of plump, red grapes. There were plenty of vegetables in the fridge under us, but they held little appeal. When Nathan and I went to the kitchen, we were raiders. We descended like locusts and went straight for the good stuff.

The kitchen was our favorite place to go. It held not just food, but choice. There, Nathan could eat whatever he wanted, not what was brought to him by a caretaker. However, the kitchen was, ultimately, a human place, and as a result, I wasn’t able to fully relax. There were all these reminders of how human spaces were not made to accommodate us. Blenders with stainless steel blades, kitchen knives, toxic cleaning agents, gas stove burners. Dangers everywhere.

Nathan dropped the last Diet Coke bottle between us and burped. I retrieved a paper board with the symbols on it. “Nathan,” I asked, pointing to symbols to accompany my words.


He pushed the board away, then pulled me in for a hug and tickle. If anything, Nathan taught me how impossible the science of ape language was to perform. His whole body was an instrument of expression. He manipulated the space between us like prose, varying the pressure of his teeth on my skin to change the tone of a message, his every touch held its own grammar as questions and statements. Nathan didn’t perform language in a way that would be easy to parse and study, he embodied it. He performed it in the way of a dancer. He lived it.

Nathan preferred gestures. Words filled him up and he had to expel their captive energy through his limbs in a way the symbols couldn’t facilitate. Crooked index finger between his teeth: Bite me. Point at keys hanging from my belt loop on a carabiner: [Keys/Open]. Crooked middle finger twisting at a door: [Open/Unlock]. Hand raised to his neck, motioning as if to let steam out of an Oxford shirt: [Collar].

If he gestured for a collar, I’d ask, “You want to go outside?” Or “You want to go to the kitchen?” He would vocalize in response, then sit with his chin raised to expedite the process. I didn’t really like the collar, but whenever I could, I looped the thick nylon strap around his neck and locked the full-sized padlock that secured it. The heavy pendant hung between the ends of his collarbones. He inspected it with his fingers, adjusting to its heft. The thing was incongruous with this person, this child. 

He asked for it every day I saw him. Often repeatedly. Switching between that gesture and the one asking for my keys. He wanted, more than just about anything else, to traverse the boundaries between ape and human space. For every step I took into his world, he was equally desperate — more so, even — to take one into mine. Every time I successfully begged, cajoled, and (sometimes) argued with humans for the opportunity to enter his world, he would greet me by asking for me to take him back to where I’d come from. Get me out of this place, he seemed to say.

So, I traded my discomfort with the collar for the chance to make him happy. He traded the cage he lived in for the one he wore around his neck. The easiest days were the ones when I didn’t have to say “no” to him. When he asked for keys or a collar and I could say “Of course” and we would go gorge ourselves and loiter on top of the walk-in fridge. 

I lived for those days of forgetting. The times when we found the right balance between the demands of our worlds and our own desires, but I was lucky if there was enough staff to accommodate us having half the building once every few weeks or so.

Nathan didn’t perform language in a way that would be easy to parse and study, he embodied it. He performed it in the way of a dancer. He lived it.

Though Nathan had been raised to be both bonobo and human, his was a secondary type of personhood. Not like that of a human child. He could enter the kitchen, but only on a leash. He was taught, but could not go to school. He had the language to ask to go outside, but he could never venture beyond the walls of the facility. I kept trying to find ways to make up for that disconnect, but, as a frustratingly junior member of staff, I couldn’t.

One day we lazed on top of the fridge until Nathan stirred and descended. My thoughts came slow in the sun-warmed room. I thought he wanted a different kind of snack until he moved toward the sink. His head disappeared as he ducked under with his leash dragging behind him.

“Nathan, c’mon man,” I said. “Nothing good down there.”

I scrambled down, imagining a montage of him ingesting jugs of cleaning solvents or blinding his eyes with toxic sprays. I approached but before I could reach him, Nathan hung from the sink lip, reared back, and kicked the garbage disposal with all his considerable muscle. He planted several rocking blows to it before I got him turned around. 

The spell he cast that made me forget the human world dissipated with the thuds of his feet against metal. I was a human and, worse, an employee. He was an ape then. It hurt to be reminded of that.

I didn’t want to get in trouble. I couldn’t afford to replace the garbage disposal. Worse, I couldn’t afford to have my time with Nathan revoked or reduced to less than it already was. But even more than that, I wanted to prove that we had something. That our connection was real and tangible. I knew he was special, but I wanted us to be special too.

I pulled him away from the sink, my ears hot. He’d never been so blatantly destructive around me before. 

“What’s wrong with you?” I used the voice I give to my dogs when they misbehave. “No!”

Nathan didn’t meet my eyes. He squirmed away only to plant another rocking blow on the disposal. I pulled him back into position with firm hands on his shoulders.

“No, Nathan. No! That’s bad.” I was near to shouting.

Nathan’s eyes were hard at the corners. He tested my hold once more, paused, then opened his mouth and screamed. He wailed long strings of ear-splitting EEEs. The whole ape house heard him. They barked, sharp, in response. He screamed so hard and so much that within minutes all his skin had broken out in half-dollar-sized hives. I unhanded him and he left my side to go sulk in a corner, screaming all the while.

The director, who’d heard the commotion, joined us after a few minutes. Nathan sprang into her arms and hugged her close, looking at me the whole time. Using his proximity to her and distance from me to express his displeasure. She soothed him and I explained the situation. Before she returned him to his ape family with a dose of liquid grape children’s Benadryl in him, I apologized. I gave him some M&M’s and a special juice box and, after a pause, he offered his back for a tickle. He would accept my offering, but he wanted me to be sorry for longer.

“Disagreements,” the director said after returning him, “are part of having language.”

The hives were no surprise to her. Nathan often got so worked up that his body rebelled. As if his emotions, same as his words, were too strong for their little container and pushed against his skin to escape.

They were the main reason why we didn’t notice when he got actually sick.

The study of ape language is a field of broken promises. Its history is littered with the allegedly well-meaning intentions of seemingly caring people and the tragic, too early passings of their charges. Their failures are made all the more devastating in that, despite what they call the apes — subjects, participants, entrants — they are the failures of parents toward their children.

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Ape language research, at its heart, seeks to investigate the age-old question of nature versus nurture. Since raising human infants in a context removed from all human influence is ethically impossible, they performed the inverse: raising apes in entirely human environments. That has historically not met the same ethical barriers, despite infants being involved in each case.

Take Gua, adopted by a pair of psychologists, the Kelloggs, who had recently given birth to their first child, Donald. The Kelloggs stressed that for any co-rearing experiment to work, the ape must be treated as human in all regards, to avoid bias. As such, Gua lived in the Kelloggs’ house, ate at the table, and generally did everything with Donald. They were inseparable, like twins, and they developed at almost identical rates in everything but their speech. 

Winthrop Kellogg’s original hypothesis, that Gua would develop aspects of human behavior, proved true. What he did not anticipate, however, was that this cultural blending would be a two-way exchange; the spectrum between Pan and Homo traversed in both directions. While Gua grew more human, Donald also took on some of Gua’s apeness, such as extensive biting. The two children met in the middle, the primary contributor to the end of the experiment.

For every step I took into his world, he was equally desperate — more so, even — to take one into mine

In each ape language study, there is one overriding and unspoken promise — we will give you a new family if you become sufficiently like us (but not if our children become like you). Unlike Gua and others, Nathan kept his ape family. Still, the promise of his life was the same, if the terms slightly altered. It all boiled down to this: We will make you one of us.

No study has yet been able to make good on that promise. No matter what the shape, be it a collar, a mesh enclosure, or a house, there is always a cage around the apes involved. They are never truly welcomed into human society. The humans, meanwhile, get to go home at the end of the day. 

Of the approximately 100 years of other ape language studies, hardly any of the apes had Nathan’s freedom. These apes were almost all taken from their mothers as infants, some as young as 2 days old, and placed in human homes or labs. Nearly all lived short, tragic lives compared to the potential 60-70 years available to them naturally. As if a stark contrast between the mental and physical self invariably tempts tragedy. Kellogg’s Gua was returned to a research center after nine months in their home (pneumonia, 3); Ladygina-Kohts’ Joni ate paint from the walls of her home (lead poisoning, 3); Hayes’ Viki fell sick during the study period (viral meningitis, 7); Temerlin’s Lucy was released back into the wild after living in a human home in Oklahoma for years (suspected poaching, 23); and Nim Chimpsky was “retired” to a research lab, which sold him into biomedical research, from which he was rescued by an animal sanctuary to live as their sole chimpanzee (heart attack, 26). So many either didn’t survive their studies or barely did. The handful of language apes, like Washoe, Koko, and Kanzi who have lived into and beyond their third decade are rare exceptions.

Several months after the garbage disposal disagreement, factors outside our control interrupted our time together. In the human half of the building, new leadership took over, stiffening the rules about contact with apes. Months passed. Then, just as we were about to renew our one-on-ones, Nathan got sick. I saw him daily during this time but it was always through the mesh of the cage. I pushed so far through it to touch and tickle him that it hurt the web of skin between my fingers.

It came out of nowhere. One day his face just swelled up. His eyes shrank to crescents between his puffy brow and cheeks. No one had any answers for it, not even the vet. Every morning I came in, Nathan looked like he had been in a boxing match the night before. We gave him Benadryl and Claritin over and over. It made him groggy, but it didn’t seem to help his swelling. Nothing seemed to help. We eliminated potential allergens. Changed cleaning solutions, avoided wheat gluten, and banned food with certain dyes. All to no effect.

As the sickness swept through him, he maintained a front of normalcy. When he chose to talk using symbols, it still came out in torrents. When he wanted to chase, he ran as fast as he could, even if the run was more of a tumble and the game didn’t last as long as usual. The vet, whose practice focused primarily on Iowa farm animals, visited often. She did her best, but Nathan was a boy, not a horse.

It didn’t go away. I asked that he see a different doctor, a human one. But in this, he was not human enough. There were ape-specific risks of a more thorough workup and, it was assumed, they outweighed the benefits given his symptoms. A full workup would require sedation and transportation and more. Nathan’s father had died two years earlier from complications with anesthesia for an elective procedure and his loss was still fresh in everyone’s heart. 

Over the course of half a year, Nathan’s swelling receded as mysteriously as it had arisen. By the time spring rolled around, he was almost normal, though his hair was a little wirier and his arms had lost some of their beef. His eyes also drooped at the outside, making him look eternally tired. But he was nearly his old self, if more subdued.

By May, with the fields outside bursting with purple, orange, and yellow wildflowers, I finally got the supervisor’s approval to go in again with Nathan. I’d been requesting it for months. Just after I got the green light, however, Nathan stopped eating and our reunion was put on hold. It didn’t matter the meal, he took a couple of bites and set it aside. Then his breathing became labored. He wheezed and coughed so loud I could hear it throughout the building. His energy gone, he spent most of his time napping. I knew I had to see him, so I did.

Nathan was dozing when I entered his room for the first time in over a year. It was late morning. I didn’t ask permission, I simply told the other caretakers that I would need that half of the building.

“Hi, Nathan,” I said as I entered. He was lying on a pile of blankets. He didn’t move at the sound of the door, but as I spoke, he lifted himself and approached. The slump of his shoulders told me just how uncomfortable he was. His swagger was gone. I didn’t think anything could take the strut out of his walk. Now, he was deflated. He hadn’t eaten more than a couple of bites in days.

And yet, he didn’t miss a beat. He hugged me about the legs, slapped my thighs, and sprung away awkwardly. Just like we normally greeted one another, only in slow motion. Now his sprint was more of a lope. I shuffled so I didn’t overtake him. We did one round of this before he led me back to his bed, laid down, and asked me to tickle him. As my fingers probed his ribs, he grunted a laugh that became wheezing and quickly turned into a racking cough. It passed, and he looked at me with his mouth hanging slightly agape as if all the strength required to close it was concentrated at the corners of his wincing eyes. I began to tickle him again, this time softly, but he brushed my hands away.

I shouldn’t have let so much time go by, I thought as we sat there, my back to one wall and Nathan inert across my thighs. It used to take hours before he’d slow down enough that we could relax like this. Today it took barely a minute.

My fingers tentatively massaged him. They met bone much easier than before. The curving mounds of his muscles were reduced, his skin slack. During the worst of his sickness, when the swelling and itching were at their highest, he’d pulled most of his arm hair out. The baldness highlighted his new angularity. I ran my fingers over his bare forehead. His sideburns were plucked clean and what hair was left was brittle stubble, bending and snapping like sun-bleached grass.

Someone brought a scale to get Nathan’s weight for the vet. He didn’t want to move and threatened to bite me when I suggested it. I waited a minute for him to doze off again, then picked him up and carried him to the scale. He’d lost over 20 pounds in under three months.

It came out of nowhere. One day his face just swelled up. His eyes shrank to crescents between his puffy brow and cheeks. No one had any answers for it, not even the vet.

We spent the remainder of the day resting. With me running my hand over his skin, and him in a near-constant adjustment of his position. Intermittently, I’d leave to get him a popsicle or some juice. I took one of his bare feet in my hand and nibbled on his toes. He huffed one laugh as if to humor me, but nothing more. I brought him M&M’s, but these were too hard for him to eat and he set them aside.

That night, I entered his cage with fresh blankets and a bowl of yogurt, an echo of our first meeting. He tried a bit of yogurt, then put the bowl down next to his bed. I’d been asked to get a blood oxygen reading for the vet with a clip that went on the end of Nathan’s finger. I moved to his side while he slipped in and out of an uneasy sleep and took his hand in mine. A coworker threaded the sensor through the mesh. Before I could clamp the device on his index finger, he woke, lunging and snapping at me. He didn’t get me, but the anger in his movements stung as much as a bite would have. 

I felt like I was betraying him, putting human obligations above his very clear refusal. He let me hold his hand again. This time I just held it. When he seemed to be fully asleep, I tried again. Once it got a reading, I unclamped it quickly, whispered good night, and slunk out of his room.

Eight hours later, he was carried out of the building on a blanket, finally breaking free of its walls, to get a full medical workup. During the night he had briefly gone into respiratory arrest. The risks of getting him checked out were now outweighed by the seriousness of his condition. They carried him by me, sleeping, but with his hands curled and ready, thumbs against the ends of his drawn index and middle fingers. I saw the potential in them. They were poised as if ready to ask for his Collar or my Keys at the very instant he woke.

In the years since I have often wondered what we accomplished in the ape house. What exactly was it that I was a part of? Did those in charge really believe all that they were saying? I thought we were doing it better, in knowing no one ever needed to tear infant apes from their mothers to learn about the limits of language. The other ape language studies had got the question wrong, I thought. They all asked whether an ape could talk if we made them sufficiently in our image. I thought we were asking if we could understand each other as equals. The true test not being in the apes’ ability to speak but in our capacity to listen.

I thought we were different. Better. But, we were not, our bonobos no more equal than the charges of any other study. Our cages and facilities were simply nicer; our methods softer.

So much of my understanding of language, and its limits, came from Nathan. His silences especially. Language is messy and incomplete and variable and profound and decidedly unscientific. There is no single, controllable, independent variable. After all, there are so many things that are beyond the ability of words to express. So much meaning outside that which is merely spoken.  

For example: There was no symbol for CANCER on the symbol keyboard. No one had ever needed to say LYMPHOMA. The lexicon was limited, but HURT was there, and I had never once seen Nathan use it. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand, it was that he would never admit such a thing. He had too big a chip on his shoulder.

For example: The way my coworker’s voice caught on the phone, starting several utterances until “He didn’t make it” could escape, and I had already known what he had to tell me. And the way I made the same stutter stop code of not-quite-shock and not-yet-loss before managing “I’m on my way” in response,  and he had already known that as well.

For example: How the people I passed as I walked through the ape house, hood over my head, made soft, unintelligible noises at me. Emitting contributions to the pall over the building. I kept moving, unsure of whether a response was expected. Unable to make one if it was. I just continued walking toward the van that had taken him to the hospital and back, parked at the other end of the facility.

For example: In the van — the gray — the interior gray — sky gray — world gray — the cold of his hand — he — splayed — the coolness of his forehead — kissing the stubble of his forehead — kissing and muttering — same three syllables — waiting for warmth to return.

For example: The stillness of the building as he was carried in and laid before the glass of the greenhouse where his family waited, pressed against the window, shoulders one against another, crowding together. The silence as deep and absolute as the understanding in his mother’s eyes.

Dan Musgrave was raised by animals in rural Kansas. He is a writer and photographer with a particular interest in the intersections of the human and animal world. For nearly seven years, he did linguistic, cognitive, and behavioral research with captive bonobos while they trained him in the art of being a better person.

Editor: Carolyn Wells

Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands