ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- After more than 30 years at Central Washington University and more than 45 years of working with chimpanzees, Roger and Debbie Fouts retired from their positions at CWU this month.
But retirement for the Foutses is not as simple as turning in the key to the office. To a certain degree, it's not retirement at all.
Life with chimpanzees is not a job, Roger said.
We'll be more like grandparents, Debbie said. We'll see them from time to time, but I won't be going every morning to greet them.
Roger's job at the time of his retirement was dean of graduate studies and research. Debbie's job title is director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute.
They are more simply known as the family who brought the chimps to Ellensburg.
The Foutses tend to deflect overt attention, but there's no denying that Washoe, the first non-human in history to acquire a human language, and the matriarch of the chimpanzee family at the CHCI, at some point in her life at the institute (she died in 2007) became Ellensburg's most famous resident.
The CHCI would not be at Central if it were not for the Foutses, but it will survive without them.
A program should not be about a personality, other than the chimps' personalities, Roger said.
This was never about us, it was always about her (Washoe), Debbie said.
Mary Lee Jensvold, the new director of CHCI, said Roger and Debbie Fouts had the vision for the institute, and part of that vision was that it was not centered on them.
Part of their vision was the institute would not be reliant on them, Jensvold said.
The Fouts family came to Ellensburg and CWU in 1980. The move to Ellensburg was driven by Washoe's needs.
The Foutses were working with Washoe at the University of Oklahoma when Roger said he heard reports that the university wanted to sell the chimps at its center to a medical research firm.
They looked at several options.
Yale did offer me a job, Roger said. I said, `Where will Washoe stay?' They took me three floors down in their animal research facility.
Washoe was to stay in a small enclosure and be cared for exclusively by an animal facility technician.
Roger said they also made contact with Larry Lium, who was vice president for university relations at Central Washington University.
We knew Larry Lium through an acquaintance in Oklahoma, Roger said.
He asked what it would take to bring us to Ellensburg.
A suitable home for Washoe was what it would take.
The chimpanzees could be treated like chimpanzees here rather than as machines, Roger said.
The chimpanzees lead the way, Debbie said. We put the program together so they can choose.
One of the other requirements was that the university not own the chimps. The chimpanzees at the CHCI have always been owned by the Friends of Washoe organization.
The Foutses and the CHCI program have been part of and integral to changes in the ways chimpanzees are treated in research and commercial institutions and altering laws that govern chimpanzees in research settings and the wild.
We've played a role, Roger said. We've been doing this for so long. One of our first actions was to raise chimpanzees from threatened to endangered species.
Another main effort has been to increase the cage size in which institutions are allowed to house chimpanzees.
Roger can go through a list of countries across the globe that have adapted far more humane measures in regard to the treatment of great apes -- with New Zealand, Spain and England on the list.
The net has been cast, Roger said. It's grown. We've worked hard, but it still isn't far enough.
Debbie said graduate students in the program at CWU regularly write letters protesting the treatment of chimpanzees and advocating for better care and treatment in the United States.
Roger said the progress can be slow because the change is fundamental to how humans view themselves.
It's changing an organism's world view, Roger said. It's going from vertical to a horizontal model. That's as much change as you can make.
Roger said people have to come to grips with biological reality.
We quite literally are connected, he said of humans and chimpanzees.
While there are changes that can be measured in terms of wildlife protection and research regulations, perhaps the most powerful impact of the Foutses' work is harder to quantify -- news of Washoe's death was carried by news outlets in every corner of the globe. When Washoe died, the world mourned.
One significant difference between today and 45 years ago is there are now chimpanzee sanctuaries across the world, including one in Cle Elum. Sanctuaries provide homes for chimpanzees who previously resided in research institutions.
John Mulcahy is the director of operations for Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, home of seven chimpanzees. He earned his masters in experimental psychology with an emphasis in primate behavior at CWU.
The Foutses played a significant role in the start of the sanctuary movement, Mulcahy said. They were on the boards of many sanctuaries.
Mulcahy said Project Washoe is the landmark research, the most significant research so far in primate behavior.
On a personal level, Mulcahy said that Roger and Debbie Fouts were a major influence in his life.
I first went to CHCI to satisfy my own curiosity, Mulcahy said.
Roger Fouts made me realize that this was something much larger than myself. And once you understood that you had a responsibility to do something to protect chimpanzees.
The Foutses' work went beyond a professional or academic commitment.
It encompassed their entire family (the Foutses have three children) and greatly influenced the way they've lived.
Debbie gave the example of how the family long celebrated Christmas.
We always did Christmas with the chimpanzees first thing Christmas morning, Debbie said.
Debbie said this involved getting her children out of bed pretty early so they could get dressed and prepared for all the events of the day. She was determined to make sure the chimpanzees were able to celebrate Christmas Day.
About five years ago I said to myself, `We could do Christmas for the chimpanzees on the 24th, ' Debbie said.
She said while the chimpanzees enjoy the Christmas celebration and know it's coming, it occurred to her it would not matter a great deal to them if it took place a day earlier.
It took me 25 years to say we don't need to get here at the crack of dawn, Debbie said with a laugh. It's made it much nicer for everyone.
The kids have never been jealous of the chimps, Roger added.
Debbie said one of their daughters has always said, Washoe was in the family before we were.
With Debbie's retirement, Jensvold has been promoted to director of CHCI.
We've been grooming her for the job for 25 years, Debbie said.
Jensvold said she feels fortunate that she ended up in Ellensburg and had the opportunity to work with Roger and Debbie. She understands what the job entails.
I felt like I'd found what I was supposed to do with my life,
Jensvold said. You are making a commitment of a lifetime.
Jensvold said the Foutses have been the leading researchers in the field of primate behavior. In addition to their professional achievements, Jensvold said they stand out for their approach.
They've never been afraid to put the chimps first, Jensvold said.
That's unusual for researchers.
Bonnie Hendrickson has been brought on staff as associate director.
Roger said Hendrickson has been working at the Dallas Zoo and her specialty is integration.
Bonnie is the perfect person to be here at this time, Roger said.
With Washoe's death in 2007 the population at the CHCI dropped to three chimpanzees -- Tatu, Dar and Loulis.
In previous interviews Debbie said the institute's population will not be allowed to drop below three but that integrating new residents is an involved and complex process. There have been ongoing discussions on how it will be accomplished.
Roger and Debbie will still call Ellensburg home, but they intend to spend more time traveling to see their children and grandchildren in this state and in Tennessee and New York.
Their retirement process started seven years ago when Roger left his position at the institute to work in administration.
That allowed Mary Lee to move into her position with the students, Roger said.
Debbie said it was important that Jensvold be established at the institute and that she have tenure.
That Mary Lee got tenure was very important to us, Debbie said.
The other factor is the couple felt like the timing was right for them, as well.
We're both coming up to 68 and we're healthy, Debbie said. We felt like it was the right time.