Annals of animal communication

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Christine Vendel, "Escaped chimpanzee causes a ruckus", Kansas City Star, 10/20/2010:

A 300-pound chimpanzee escaped from its owner Tuesday afternoon and ran rampant through a Kansas City neighborhood, scaring walkers, pounding on passing cars and breaking a police car’s windshield.

The 21-year-old ape, named Sueko, also pointed and laughed at residents and flipped off an animal control officer near 78th Street and Indiana Avenue, witnesses said.


  1. Iulus said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 6:13 am

    I remember in article in Science News a few years back that said a team of researchers had identified sixty behaviors passed down generationally through a group of chimps which they believed to be indications of chimp culture. Apparently chimps can learn human culture in addition to (limited) sign language.

  2. George said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 6:20 am

    It seems that one more distinction between humans and other mammals has fallen. Now, we just need a good evolutionary explanation for this gesture.

  3. Brian said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 6:23 am

    "I gotcher good evolutionary explanation riiiight here…."

  4. Kylopod said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 7:30 am

    It shows the symbiotic relationship between humans, apes, and birds.

  5. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 7:38 am

    It's a little-known fact that there was a troop of chimps in Henry V's army at Agincourt.

  6. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 7:42 am

    "…while the city’s legal department weighs its option."

    That shouldn't take long

  7. MattF said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 7:54 am

    Three hundred pounds is at least double the 'normal' weight of an adult male chimpanzee, so… Maybe it's a gorilla in a chimpanzee suit.

  8. Mark P said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    My dog does something like smile sometimes, but when I smile at strange dogs, they get all mad. It's like they don't understand my human facial expressions.

  9. Sili said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    At least it didn't get its hands on any frogs.

  10. SimonMH said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    I'm interested in the pronunciation of Sueko. Is it su:kəʊ, sueɪkəʊ or something else? On the other hand, from the gesture perhaps it's jusʌk…

  11. George said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    Is Nim Chimpsky is working on determining the deep structure of the gesture.

  12. Rodger C said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    @Richard Howland-Bolton: Hence the triumph of the longbow. "They want to be dominant."

  13. Ellen K. said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    @ MattF: It was originally reported as a gorilla.

  14. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    @SimonMH: I would expect the second syllable to be /koU/ and not the Canadian-sounding /k@U/, although I will admit to not being especially familiar with the Kansas City accent.

  15. Theodore said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    @SimonMH & @Garrett Wollman: Many humans named Sueko that turn up on the web appear to be women of Japanese origin or descent. That might suggest a pronunciation, though I don't know what KC-accented Japanese is like, especially when spoken by a chimpanzee.

  16. groki said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    ran rampant

    it's a familiar idiom, even a cliche, but multiple shades of Sueko's behavior are nicely encapsulated in that "rampant":
    (1) with abandon;
    (2) violently, menacingly;
    (3) on her hind legs;
    and even (4) climbing.

  17. xyzzyva said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    @Garrett Wollman, @Theodore
    As a Kansas Citian planning to get sushi tonight with human family, I will do my best to research this important niche.

    Clearly, though, we Kansas Citians have no accent! Duh.

    If anyone is aware of a (recent-ish) dialect study of the Kansas City area, I would be much obliged. It seems like we and Omaha (and maybe Indianapolis, too) are the only Midwestern cities totally exempt from the Northern Cities Shift as well as various Midland/Southern features.* On the other hand, I've never quite gotten the distinction between (non-Shifted) Midwestern and Western accents, so maybe KC should now be grouped with the West.

    *My own speech, though, has a few of each, being ancestrally from rural central Missouri (my father says /ˈwɔɹʃ/, a grandma uses you'uns, etc.), as well as having many peers from St Louis and the Great Lakes.

  18. Ben said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    @SimonMH: If Sueko is indeed the Japanese name (すえこ) as Theodore suggests, it would be roughly [sɯeꜜko] (although Wikipedia suggests that ɯ is not quite correct.

  19. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    I see that many of you laugh at this story. It is not funny! Stop giggling, all of you, and simmer down. Mark has put it on Language Log because he knows what I will make of it: that it is one more sign of a belief common to most journalists and most of the general public. They believe that a chimpanzee might actually flip the bird. But flipping the bird (as opposed to happening to put one's hand in a position where the third digit is rigid and the others are curled) is a studied insult that is tantamount to an utterance act, an actual saying of something (which is different from any kind of behavior triggered by immediate circumstances or motivated by a desire to get something to happen).

    Flipping someone the bird signifies an intent to insult, and the intention is that the insult should be achieved in virtue of the insultee's recognition that the insulter intended it to be thus interpreted. This is Grice's "non-normal meaning" notion. My claim, oft expressed here, is that no non-human animal has ever, in the history of the planet, accomplished such an act. Certainly no chimpanzee has. Chimps are notoriously hopeless at getting the hang of the idea that other creatures have mental states and thus might need information, or be prepared to share information, or respond to being in possession of information, or appreciate that they were being insulted, or understand that it would be possible for them to insult someone else. No chimp, I claim, no matter what the exact position of its digits might be, and no matter what attitude it might have toward an animal control officer, has ever flipped the bird, nor ever will or could. That is what I think the evidence supports. That is what the innocent dim-wittedness of the Kansas story tells us the reporter probably did not understand.

  20. Mark Mandel said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    "nonnatural meaning", ¿no?

  21. ignoramus said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    oh! just copying without meaning, Yes anthropoids are minus a few genes that humans might have but humans also fail to use that extra material, especially those that use a middle finger sign of greeting.

  22. Ellen K. said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    @Geoffrey K. Pullum

    That's Kansas City. And more specifically, Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas has nothing to do with the story.

    No problem with the rest of what you wrote. :)

  23. Mark P said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 6:58 pm


    I have tried to explain to my dog the meaning of various human words and gestures, but he insists on interpreting everything I say as an offer for a walk, ice cream, or a belly rub. I'm pretty sure he's at least as adept at human language and physical expressions as a chimp, perhaps even more so. I had always assumed I was just not talking loud enough, but you give me pause.

  24. Bobbie said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    Mark P — No, your dog gives **you paws!

  25. George said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

    @GKP: I really don't think that those here expressing humor about this did so thinking that the chimp was making this gesture with a human-like intent to insult.

  26. Joyce Melton said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

    If a cat crapping in your shoes because you haven't cleaned the litter box isn't intent to communicate information, I don't know what is.

  27. Julie said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

    It seems very reasonable that a chimpanzee could copy the human gesture and notice that people react in some way to this gesture. Not necessarily attributing the meaning that we understand it to have, but simply trying to get people to react. Because they like to be noticed. It gets attention. Does she know it's an insult? Probably not. Just a fun thing to do.

    My dog has noticed that when she pulls me sleeve I notice….so she pulls my sleeve more and more. Not learning what I'd like her to learn, but learning what she wants to know.

  28. SimonMH said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    Thank you, Ben, Garrett, Xyzzyva and Theodore for helping to clear up this vitally important question; I feel the sum of simian knowledge has been advanced in a small but significant way.

  29. Rodger C said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    Primates, and even other mammals, certainly have gestures of dominance and submission. What's to prevent a chimp raised by humans from copying something that obviously has the function of a dominance gesture among humans?

  30. Mark P said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

    @Joyce Melton

    Once a litter box has been used and not cleaned, the location of the next cat crapping event is a function of what's convenient for the cat. It's kind of like how they choose where to lie down and take a nap: there may be some locations that are preferred over others, but it is still closely correlated with where the cat happens to be when the urge strikes.

  31. Sybil said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    This our near relative has managed to express itself more clearly than 2 out of 5 of the last student papers I've read.

    I learn from this only that our students have learned to conceal what they know just in case it is wrong.

  32. Joyce Melton said,

    October 20, 2010 @ 11:31 pm

    @mark p

    When the cat walks out of the bathroom, into the living room and searches out the shoes in question while being watched and then performs the act while watching the watchers, I maintain that that is communication.

  33. Barrett D said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 4:07 am

    The chimp rides with a trucker. Isn't it entirely possible the chimp has learned the behavior of flipping the bird to people that are pissing him the f*ck off?

  34. George said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 6:12 am

    I think that the reason for the chimp's action comes under the Theory of Mind issue. It has been claimed that this is a uniquely human trait. However, the Wikipedia article suggests that this question is still in play. In any event, I doubt that any researcher would suggest that Sueko "flipped off an animal control officer" with an intent to insult.

  35. Rodger C said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    For animals' intentional behavior toward each other and humans, see the writings of Vicki Hearne.

  36. Mark P said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    One of the biggest problems with this sort of thing is that humans are very good at communicating (most of the time … well, OK, a lot of the time. Oh, OK, some of the time) and our perceptions are tuned to interpret sounds and behavior as communication. But other animals live in worlds in which their perceptions are tuned to different things. As I tried to say obtusely above, we interpret facial expressions differently from dogs, and I think, differently from chimps, but we tend to interpret their facial expressions as if they conveyed the same emotional state as in a human. Human smiles and dog "smiles" signify very different internal states and communicate (and are intended to communicate) very different things to their respective species. (I use "intend" loosely here. I doubt a dog consciously intends to communicate anything by baring its teeth in a smile.)

    Chimps may mimic human gestures, but I doubt that the gestures have the same internal meaning for them that they do for a human. But we insist on interpreting them as if they conveyed the same thing they would if a human made them, and as if the chimp intends to convey that meaning. Of course, once we teach them to speak we can just ask them about it.

    Cats, too.

  37. George said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 10:32 am


    "Chimps may mimic human gestures, but I doubt that the gestures have the same internal meaning for them that they do for a human."

    Yes, 'flipping off' critically depends on the flipper projecting the mental state of the flippee. If we expect that no insult would be perceived, then the gesture would be meaningless. A human (who believes the flippee understands the meaning of the gesture) would need no visible reaction for it to serve its purpose.

  38. John Cowan said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    And yet flipping off is a transferred phallic gesture, and phallic gestures are not even confined to the primates: a squirrel will make one towards other squirrels, or a President towards other inmates of the Oval Office. So I am more than doubtful that the gesture invariably and necessarily conveys an intention of giving insult.

    For myself, when I give someone the bird, I am expressing hostility — and let me tell you, I give some mean and fearsome bird, with the mere raising of the middle finger just one of the many included features — and the expression of hostility is clearly well within the capacity of a chimp, as is the ability to learn hitherto unknown methods of self-expression, as Mike of Gombe's well-documented dominance displays with empty gasoline cans more than sufficiently demonstrates.

    But when I croon that the someone's parents were undoubtedly brothers, or audibly regret that I am inhibited by the immediate context from adequately discussing their ancestry, personal habits, morals, and destination — then I am insulting them, using for the purpose my unfettered human (and species-specific) capacity for free expression of thoughts. So there.

  39. Mark P said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    How do chimp dominance displays with gasoline cans differ from displays with, for example, tree branches?

  40. Barrett D said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    Chimps can learn sign language, right?

    If this chimp rides with a trucker, certainly its possible he was exposed to alot of birds.

    Couldn't the chimp understand what that "sign" means?

  41. ignoramus said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    Humans have all the genes of the other life forms.
    It is not a case of animals imitating the senior primate, it is a case of Homo sapiens apeing the other species.

  42. John Cowan said,

    October 21, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    Gasoline cans make a lot more noise, thus greatly impressing other chimps.

  43. Xmun said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 1:32 am

    "My claim, oft expressed here, . . ."

    Whence such (delightful) archaism? Oft?

    Oft, in the stilly night,
    Ere Slumber's chains have bound me . . . (Thomas Moore)

  44. Shelly said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 4:43 am

    John Cowan, are you intimating that our current or perhaps President is not a primate?

    More critically, I'm concerned that only one person, MattF, notes that a 300-pound chimpanzee in the street would be, to understate, and anomaly. I cannot even contemplate what the brain size of said mammal would be, but it most certainly could figure out one of the most emotionally charged gestures in human non-verbal communication: the bird.

  45. Mark P said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    According to the Honolulu zoo, captive male chimps can weigh around 200 lb, so 300 lb indicates a well-fed chimp, perhaps one that dines at fast food restaurants and watches late-night television with a half-gallon of ice cream in its lap. Or maybe the owner was wrong. Or the reporter.

  46. Angus Grieve-Smith said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    But is the Pope a primate? That's the question.

  47. Ellen K. said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    A more recent estimate is "probably weighs less than 200 pounds".

    and picture here:

  48. maidhc said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 1:07 am

    It's possible that the owner trained the chimp to flip the bird to people he disliked. I'm sure a chimp could learn a trick like this, and you can see that some people might think this was an amusing thing to teach a chimp to do. I also would think that chimps are sensitive enough to human emotions to understand the emotional significance of the act. Chimp observes: When I do this trick I learned, my owner laughs his head off and gives me an extra banana, birdee gets mad.

  49. Graeme said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 7:00 am

    This Australian reader, naive to the term 'flipping off' but sensing the article was posted humorously, read the term first as a euphemism for chimpish onanism, then as a form of acrobatics using the poor officer as a vault.

    So it's shorthand for what we call 'giving the finger'? (Useful to know next time I meet an ape – or journalist – on the loose.)

    [(myl) Yes, exactly. I believe that it's a shortened form of "flipping the bird", the OED's sense 4.e. for bird, "An obscene gesture of contempt", tagged as U.S. slang. The 2007 draft additions to the OED's entry for flip include

    trans. N. Amer. slang. to flip the bird, to make (an obscene and offensive gesture of contempt) at a person by raising the middle finger (see BIRD n. 4e). Now usu. to flip (a person) the bird; also to flip (a person) off (also fig.).


  50. Christopher said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 7:24 am

    Living in Kansas, as I do, I am surprised this monkey was unarmed !

  51. John Cowan said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    Shelly. Actually I was referring to LBJ, notorious for exposing his penis as a threat display, yea even in the Oval Office.

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