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Though the Lucy experiment would largely be called a failure, could there be a way to re-do it... but better? Producer Soren Wheeler visits The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, to meet Kanzi the bonobo. Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh uses lessons learned from her time with Lucy in her current research with great apes, and Bill Fields explains the basics of bonobo-human communication, and ruminates on the differences between bonobo culture and our own, as illustrated by a swift and painful bite to his hand.

Produced by:

Soren Wheeler

Comments [53]


Are you kidding?! So what was in the pit ??????????

May. 05 2014 07:51 PM

can anyone tell me the artist or song name of the ambient music at the very end?

Great episode by the way. Really fantastic story.

Mar. 24 2014 09:17 PM

I wish the whole "talking english" thing would have been either proven or questioned further...

Mar. 10 2014 04:01 PM
Phyllis Elliott from Santa Monica, CA

Almost 50 years ago, Jane Goodall went to Africa to study chimpanzees in their home. I applaud any scientist who works to document the intelligence and culture of other species, but to pull them away from their families and habitat, ship them overseas, and confine them behind bars to be studied is as cruel as it would be if someone did that to you without your consent. I think when we achieve full communication, what they have to say to us will not be easy to hear. Thank you for the story.

Mar. 11 2013 04:55 PM
Carolyn from Santa Rosa, Ca

I had read the book about Lucy but never knew what happended after until hearing this show and it was a sad ending to the story of Lucy's life. i have always been fascinated with the link between humans and primates but cannot condone taking them out of their natural environment and culture. I have always admired Jane Goodall because she made it her life's work to study and understand primates on their terms and in their world.

Mar. 10 2013 12:53 AM
Chie sato roden from NYC

I couldn't stop crying out for Lucy after I learned what happened to her at the end.
Please, please leave animals in their habitat. It is only human arrogance to think about raising them in human environment. Yes. We have a beautiful experience that seem like bonding. However, we are us. They are them.
Is their any group who are promoting animal dignity through our respect for them

Mar. 09 2013 09:35 PM
nutso fasst

Regarding Lucy and a hypothetical poacher, you need to read this:

Regarding the Kanzi soap cat and I carry on conversations. I don't imagine I understand everything she says. I wonder if Kanzi bit Fields's hand because he got fed up with Fields's pretentiousness.

I'm reminded of Timothy Treadwell, who lived among Alaskan Grizzly Bears and was convinced he could communicate with them. He and his girlfriend were eaten.

Mar. 09 2013 10:56 AM
Paul from Iowa

I had four contacts with the Great Ape Trust and met Kanzi several times. My son was employed there and in a meeting with Sue and Kanzi when his cell buzzed with an emergency call that I was hospitalized with an injury. The call was taken in the hall with the door closed. With Kanzi's acute hearing, he overheard the cell conversation. Reentering the room my son heard Kanzi articulate "You Go". I visited the facility within a year and without prompt Kanzi want to see my injury close. I was allowed to approach his area.
Lucy's story is shocking. Yet, Bonobos live in a region that has been consumed by war, which threatens their habitat and survival. The Great Ape Trust is conscientious of their care and advocated for the wellbeing of Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Orangutans, and Gorillas in both captivity and in the wild. The Great Ape Trust needs our financial support to continue to provide a sanctuary for the Great Apes, especially the Bonobos.

Sep. 11 2012 02:53 AM

Should have been added to the new op sys Mountain Lion

Jul. 26 2012 12:10 PM
byrna weir from WXXi Rochester, NY

Was this aired again on July 10, 2012 on npr? I'm confused.
Thanks very much,

Jul. 11 2012 05:58 PM
Naomi from Vermont

So since Kanzi was able to learn to speak English but the researchers didn't learn to speak Bonobish, that makes Kanzi smarter--right?

Jul. 07 2012 09:08 PM
Elaine Livesey-Fassel from Los Angeles,Calif.

Again another anguishing but fascinating and enlightening program about Mans relationship, both good and bad, with our close relatives - chimps and bonobos. I was devastated by the documentary NIM of a few months ago and yet can only be grateful for the current work being conducted in an effort to comprehend the nature of this relationship in the fond hope that there will be more RESPECT paid to these creatures, especially by those who currently exploit them in Entertainment and Laboratory environments. This program can only help in the quest to free these, our relatives, from confinement and experimentation, or at least one can pray that that is so.

Jul. 07 2012 08:47 PM
karin from kqed

I just heard this story on Radiolab...and, I agree with this listener...this was a completely selfish act on these people's part to
'steal' this chimp from her mother, spend years developing her trust and make her dependent on them, and then to abandon her because she became what she always was....and they didn't know how to handle it. Shame on you.

Jul. 07 2012 04:57 PM
Alixe from Massachusetts

I wish I had never heard your show about Lucy. I will be forever haunted by her terror and pain at being forced to the point of starvation to live a life she was never prepared for, and how any one could have left her on the island like that, hurt and scared. This is too upsetting for words. How do those researchers sleep at night?

Apr. 07 2012 04:49 PM

The fact that the question of whether this can be done again (better???) is being presented is disturbing too. If scientists can use a living being as close to humans in such a way, then not fulfill a decent commitment to a humane lifespan - this should never be considered again.

This experiment was heartbreaking, offensive and unethical. Any parent; any person who cares about a living thing; could recognize from the moment the Tamerlins decided they were not committed to Lucy after all that she would not thrive - imagine being taken from everything you know on a cross continental flight and deposited in a cage in the wild. This was animal torture.

Feb. 20 2011 01:23 PM
Chesley from Louisville

I don't understand why Janice didn't just take her back home when it looked like releasing her into the wild wasn't working out. Couldn't she have lived a happy life with her human parents? I am haunted when I think about how scared she must have been at the end...

Jul. 27 2010 09:55 PM

I listened about Lucy and I realized that she had soo much in common with my dear Melanie, a miniature Poodle who just died a week ago, since she was born, Melanie lived inside my house with my family for 5 years, and she was rised as a human, she used to communicate with us with gestures, when she was hungry, happy, mad tired or she wants to be alone to sleep, she also used to grab her favorite snack and watch the TV with us, she let us know that she understand everybody's feelings and she taught us the way to understand hers, she acted as a human all the time, in my conclusion, the animals have feelings and they shouldn't be part of any experiment, we "The humans" are cruel with everything on this world, destroying the nature to obtain money.

Jul. 17 2010 12:38 AM
Shannon from Orlando

Beautifully done. Thank you.

Jul. 09 2010 11:27 AM
Sarah C from Seattle

Nothing terribly profound to say - I just enjoyed listening to this story so much that I had to reach out of my millennium generational apathy/egotism and publicly acknowledge it.

May. 29 2010 04:29 PM
Tiffaney from Seattle

Heart wrenching, the story moved me, the last picture in the slide show has tears falling from my eyes. Our curiosity and need for knowledge often arrives at an ending that the use of common sense could have prevented.

May. 28 2010 10:49 PM
Andy from Washington Township, NJ

Such a sad but well-reported story! Poor Lucy...kidnapped from Mom as an infant, raised in a human environment and then abandoned because they didn't have the foresight to anticipate her needs as a mature chimp and then slaughtered by poachers. The human-chimp social contract has never been more violated.

May. 11 2010 04:52 PM
linore from nyc ny


Your comment misses the point of this horrible animal experiment.

May. 11 2010 04:00 PM
linore from nyc ny

This story is so sad, I am crying .
All people should listen to this reality.
We as a compassionate species , please make laws to put an end to all animal experiments.

May. 11 2010 03:57 PM
nina from 37916

kanzi and lucy story touched my heart. i am an animal lover. i agree with bill that animals can and do speak our languages. i have personal experience with dog. sue said it right to be civilized(?)we lost our connections
with animals and nature. not a wise bargain after all. thank you for the story.

May. 07 2010 06:02 PM
Rebecca Allen from Portland, Oregon

I read the article another commenter posted (Kirk) and I disagree with his conclusion that the article, which is 15 years old, credibly dismisses the ideas presented by Radio Lab regarding chimp and bonobo language abilities. The question is not whether chimps can string together a few words to say a new idea, or whether chimps can understand simple sentences, but whether this activity constitutes "language," a poorly defined word, and whether "language" is the unique domain of humans which linguists attempt to protect from encroachment by other species.

Apr. 29 2010 12:16 AM
John Back from Jersey Shore

Here is the link for the photos...not great quality, but the last one is really something.

I just don't understand why people would take chimps into their homes and raise them as children...the early years might be fun and informative, but the end game is sure to be cruel. Is it info derived really worth the pain involved?

Kudos to the folks who worked so hard to acclimate Lucy to her true nature.

Apr. 24 2010 09:40 AM
Krishnan R.S. from San Francisco

Really remarkable story. I listened to the tail end of the show - starting with Lucy. Very sad story about Lucy and about us humans and our attitudes towards other animals.
Janice Carter seems like a remarkable lady - to live in Gambia and push Lucy through her (rough) transition must have demanded a lot of a young lady form OK.
All in all - great program.

Apr. 22 2010 11:48 AM
Lile Elam from CA

What a truly sad story. I too am surprised that the adopted parents abandoned Lucy to the wild where she had no experience in living. There must have been a better place for her to live out her life??? someplace where she would continue to have human contact but in a safe way?

That she was killed by poachers shows that she did not know that humans could be dangerous and unkind.

I looked for the slide show but have still not found it.

Anyone have the full URL of the page?



Apr. 22 2010 06:22 AM
Rad from Virginia

I listened to this show yesterday and since then I cannot stop thinking about Lucy and her story. I saw the picture that was mentioned in the show and I was completely heartbroken. This was one of the most fascinating stories I have heard. Thanks for the powerful and beautiful manner that is was presented.

Apr. 12 2010 09:05 PM
Todd from Long Beach, California

Wow! Another great show! I am telling all my friends. Thanks for making radio so exciting!!!

Apr. 12 2010 12:24 AM
Mort from Los Angeles

the communication between the "primates" was about something supposedly in the hole? what was in there? couldn't believe the show left me hanging like that!

Apr. 11 2010 10:48 PM
Pat C from MD

I hoped to see the pictures of Lucy & Kanzi. I had known about Lucy but not about her ending. I think it was completely wrong to do an experiment without considering what would happen to her throughout it. Cruel and short-sighted is an understatement.

Apr. 11 2010 07:58 PM
Cute Guy

Come one commentators it wasn't cruel from humans that they took Lucy and then eventually released her. Chimps can be very cruel so Lucy probably had very good life. Don't believe me? Just read Jane Goodal's book "Through a Window - My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe"

Apr. 08 2010 12:14 PM
julie from kilkenny,ireland

A great example of human stupity!!!! this is an embarrasment for humanity

Apr. 04 2010 03:39 PM
Marianne from Sacramento from Sacramento, Ca.

Kirk from Providence, RI: If you are going to critique the producers and researchers for lack of evidence, please play by the same rules. An assertion like "But they don't use language as humans do.." needs much clarification and substantiation. By what credentials, experience could you possibly use such a blanket statement with any confidence? No, of course apes don't use language "the way humans do". Nor do we use it the way they do. The amazing thing is we have established communication with them using OUR language. And they have learned it, multiple times in multiple places with multiple researchers to communicate both concrete and abstract thoughts. There is in fact so much evidence of their remarkable language abilities as to stymie nit pickers about our superiority.

Apr. 03 2010 07:55 PM
Amahl from Tampa, Fl

Janis Carter is an amazing human being. She spent so much time and effort to get Lucy acclimated to her new environment. She deserves an award, recognition, something. I wish the show had explored her experiences and reasons why she did what she did more.

Mar. 25 2010 09:24 PM

It was a heart wrenching story and seeing the picture made me cry. Humans can be stupid and cruel. But you humans are great. I love the show, keep them coming.

Mar. 19 2010 02:45 PM
nicole from Minneapolis MN

I agree with Lynda from Denver. What a terrible thing to do to a creature. obviously she understood that people were trying to abandon her, i cant imagine how it felt to be left on that island. They needed to stay the course and continue letting Lucy live out the rest of her life as a 'human' not as an ape.

Mar. 16 2010 11:17 AM
Adam from Ohio

Wow, loved this story. Does anyone know what the music was behind the intro @ 6:58?

Mar. 12 2010 11:02 AM
Christine from Poughkeepsie

Your presentation of this story was outstanding. I don't usually listen to stories like this because I know I will cry through the entire thing. Somehow, the way you presented it allowed me to have compassion and understanding for everyone involved. I even feel okay about Lucy. She let Janis know she was okay. And today, she is not suffering anymore.

Mar. 09 2010 08:51 PM
Lori from Seattle

Heartbreaking, weird, appalling. I agree with Sandra Rita and Fee from NYC. Thank you, RadioLab for a fascinating story. This is the most enthralling and affecting stories I've ever heard. I am fascinated and deeply touched. It's sparking all kinds of conversation and research in our household.
P.S. Playgirl, seriously? That guy doesn't know the first thing about women.

Mar. 05 2010 11:45 PM
sandra rita

As much as humans mean well, their stupidity and self-serving grandiose ideas are appalling. To release an animal back into the wild when it has become acclimated to humans, particulary animals that are so close to humans, is a selfish act, and Lucy's plight amounts to what would be considered abandonment, abuse and cruelty in humans. If there were truly justice on the part of other sentient beings, these humans would be in jail or worse.

Mar. 01 2010 05:49 PM
Fee from NYC

This show made me subsequently sad and angry, very angry at the humans who INSIST on projecting their need for superiority onto other beings. The thought of Lucy being abandoned in the wild by her parents was just hurtful and cruel. And to abuse her in the manner that they did is even worse (and by abuse, I mean stealing her from her mother and raising her to be a well trained pet). Every thing about Lucy and her treatment has left me feeling so disturbed and the terrible way she's just unthinkable. And to the scientist who expected the Benobo to live up to man's and not his own innate values....well he deserved to have his hand bitten...hopefully he learned a less that wasn't about getting the ape to conform, but to understand the dangers of not respecting the code and the boundaries of social animals that are similar to us, but not like us.

Feb. 27 2010 09:01 PM
ohlistener from ohio

Consider the time period. These scientists were at the forefront. I seriously doubt that they could have foreseen either the attachment that would develop or the issues that arose. Lovely, heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. Thank you.

Feb. 27 2010 08:49 PM
laura from So. Calif

On the main page, click on the slide show, Lucy the Chimpanzee. It starts with the baby picture of Lucy in the checkered dress. Either at the end or close to it, is the picture of Lucy and Janis hugging. I couldn't find it right away either.
The slideshow is well-done. I doubt I would have viewed it if I wasn't seeking the hug photo.Maybe they presented it that way purposely? Clever! But it would have been helpful to have mentioned this additional info on the radio show.
The story is so powerful, that I'm sure lots of listeners will want to view the photos.
Thanks Radiolab and This American Life for the consistently superb content.

Feb. 24 2010 04:23 PM
djheater from Chicago Area

I thought radiolab did deal with the question of Kanzi's speech. The purpose of the show was not to examine animal vocalizations but human and animal cultural interactions. The fact is the human cultural actors in the story believe that Kanzi speaks and that's the story.
I think that the assertion of animal speech can rile people of a particularly scientific bent, but if you switch focus to examining the cultural and emotional interactions the actors are having with the animals it's fascinating.

Anyway I just came here because I wanted to find out what Kanzi thought was in the outdoor pit! Did they find anything? Talk about a cliffhanger...

Feb. 24 2010 01:29 PM
superreggie from oakland ca

I thought there was supposed to be a photo of them hugging, no? I'm not seeing it here...

Feb. 23 2010 07:52 PM
Mark from Baltimore

I totally agree with "Kirk From Providence".

You can not let an assertion that an ape can use English without either some audio of it, or a further look into that question, or an opinion of an expert.

The scrutiny was also very lacking when it came to the researcher's opinion that Kanzi threatened to bite in response to an external situation, and then eventually apologized.

That sounded a lot more like that man was bitten by the bonobo, and then created this back story to explain it. The entire "waiting for the apology" section was thin, too. Another researcher told the man that the ape finally apologized after 8 months? There are other podcasts I can listen to if I'm looking for nonsense.

Feb. 23 2010 07:33 AM
Felix from SLC, UT

Another great, and heart wrenching episode. I hope Lucy's demise will protect others from being tossed aside from "loving" parents.

Feb. 22 2010 03:10 PM
hitomi clark

I cried.
One question .... this was experimantal, granted, however,why did "parents" did not take care of her as they should.. or as they have rased her.

Clearly Lucy had emotion that were just like us and had needs just like us.-I hope that there "experimet" will have better ending,considering their need not what we need them to be.... for the animals in the future.

Feb. 22 2010 01:06 PM
Kirk from Providence, RI

I'm really disappointed! The assertions that Kanzi was able to use human language were accepted without question. I've listened to every episode of Radio Lab and never felt that the show did such a poor job on the background science as it did in the case of this story. Chimps/bonobos are incredible animals with incredible talents. But they don't use language as humans do. It's not that they don't communicate with us in some limited ways - I think they do. The problem with the claim is that it creates a huge misunderstanding about what language is. And some of the claims are probably just false. These kinds of experiments don't have a good track record for producing data that can be examined scientifically for truthfulness. When it has been looked at, it comes up short in comparison to the claims of the animal researchers.

A sampling of viewpoints from scientists who study language and biology can be found in this NYT article.
The section on Lucy was heartbreaking, I'll grant you. I'm looking forward to the next show and keeping my fingers crossed that it'll be less credulous.

Feb. 22 2010 12:43 AM
Lynda from Denver

How unfair these people were to Lucy. Using her as an experiment without taking into consideration that she most likely does have feelings similar to ours. Then when she is to much to handle they leave her and walk away. How unfair and how cruel we humans can be. How very very sad.

Feb. 21 2010 11:27 PM
Miguel Nunez from Chicago, IL

One of the best radiolab shows I've heard. Keep up the great work guys. Note that there's an error on the webpage. The date says April 09, 2010.

Feb. 21 2010 01:31 PM

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