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RIP Sarah: The World’s Smartest Chimp Has Died

Sarah helped a diabetic chimpanzee named Abby, who she was living with, remember to get her medication. She was also a loving, yet stern, aunt-like figure to a pair of young chimpanzees, Harper and Emma.

LORI GRUEN: ‘Do other animals think, and what do they think about? Sarah, a chimpanzee who died last week in her late 50s, offers some important clues. Sarah, who could have been deemed the world’s smartest chimp, was brought to the United States from Africa as an infant to work with David and Ann Premack in a series of experiments designed to find out what chimpanzees might think. In order to determine what, if anything, might be on Sarah’s mind, she was one of the first chimpanzees to be taught a human language. The Premacks taught her to use plastic magnetic tokens that varied in size and color to represent words. She formed sentences by placing the tokens in a vertical line. Ann Premack noted that her earliest words named “various interesting fruits,” so that Sarah “could both solve her problem and eat it”…

She often would create sentences of the form “Mary give Sarah apple” but when Mary would change the order to read “Sarah give Mary apple” Sarah would not be happy and knock the sentence off the board… Finding new sources of interest was important and for Sarah it was clear that asking her about her favorite people and promising her M & Ms provided strong motivation… Sarah’s favoritism toward certain people came in handy in her groundbreaking participation in tests that lead to a subfield of inquiry known in psychology and philosophy as “theory of mind.” Sarah helped David Premack and co-author Guy Woodruff answer the title question of their 1978 paper “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” in the affirmative…

Sarah’s career established that not only do chimpanzees have complex thoughts, but also distinct personalities with strong preferences and prejudices. But this is just part of her remarkable life story. As she grew older she helped a diabetic chimpanzee named Abby, who she was living with, remember to get her medication. She was a loving, yet stern, aunt-like figure to a pair of young chimpanzees, Harper and Emma, and she helped Henry, a male chimpanzee who came from a situation of terrible abuse, get along with other chimpanzees’. SOURCE…

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