top of page

One small step for Ape

av Kristoffer Robin Haug.

"En ape", av George Stubbs.

Robertson was cutting away at yet another piece of wood for his installation. He did his best to limit his sense of self-satisfaction with creating what would probably be heralded as a significant milestone in all of history – and not just human history at that. His hands had more success than his head, however, but at least he found a sense of humility in thinking of his project as a small step in the much larger history of life on earth.

His funders were, of course, blissfully unaware of Robertson’s grand scheme. The university had sent him to the nature reserve on the coast of Gabon to teach sign-language to chimpanzees in their natural habitat; a noble goal in and of itself. It was not that Robertson was uninterested in replicating results found in apes living in enclosures or seeing whether sign language could spread between simians in the wild. His ambitions were simply on a different level than those of his colleagues back home.

He was just getting started on drilling a hole in the side of a grapefruit-sized, wooden ball, when his two top students, Honir and Mimir, came swinging by him with the hope of picking up a complimentary banana or two. Every time he spelled their names to greet them he cursed himself for letting Lasse, the Scandinavian PhD-student, name all the apes rather than sticking to his original plan of just labelling them with the letters of the alphabet. At least Jormungandir was nowhere to be seen.

"Banana, please?" Honir did the signs while Mimir strategically positioned himself next to the rucksack where Robertson kept the golden rewards. Robertson had spent two whole weeks of extra time to teach the apes to add "please" at the end of a request. Humility was, after all, a virtue worth teaching. "You must complete a lesson first," Robertson insisted. "Banana first, lesson after," Honir suggested, as he always did. Robertson tried his best not to think too much about the fact that these two fanged creatures could tear out his jugular vein at any point in time and happily help themselves to whatever fruits he was guarding. He turned to Mimir. "Will you complete a lesson?" "I'm too old," Mimir replied, as if that was a valid argument. Robertson walked over to his teaching table. Often the most successful approach was to go ahead and assume the outcome he wanted, and the chimps would follow his lead. Sure enough, they would obediently repeat his description of the shapes he had laid out on his table until they each had earned their rightful banana.

As the apes swung their way through the trees again, Robertson felt his pants vibrating. The call was from Lasse and, seeing as how he usually only called when something had been postponed for so long that it had to be dealt with right now, he found it best to answer.

"Hi, Lasse, what do you need?"

"Hi, Doctor Moreau!" Lasse was his usual insubordinate self. "You can't tell over the phone of course, but I'm currently rolling on the jungle floor laughing."

Robertson tried again. "What do you need, Lasse?"

"Well," Lasse said, "I'm delivering my thesis in two days, and I need both my supervisors to give me some feedback on the final draft."

"And you figured I only needed a day to review an entire thesis, seeing as how I'm not busy with fieldwork or anything?"