He can cook, play music, use a computer, He is an Ape, his name is Kanzi
He can cook, play music, use a computer – and make sarcastic jokes chatting with his 3,000-word vocabulary: My lunch with the world’s cleverest chimp (who Skyped me later for another chat)
He’s just had to sit through his offspring’s fourth birthday party, with the youngster tearing open his presents and jumping all over daddy’s head in his excitement. So I can understand the expression of weariness on Kanzi’s face when I ask him what he wants for lunch.
Then someone mentions the word ‘omelette’ — a Kanzi favourite, not just to eat but even to cook — and he’s off. He clambers on to a ledge in the viewing room of his concrete, steel and glass home and positions himself in front of a large, touch-sensitive computer screen showing a grid of some 400 symbols, or ‘lexigrams’, each representing a particular object or idea.
A huge forefinger skims dextrously over the icons, pressing the ones he wants. The computer voices his selections with an American accent.
He summons eggs, onions, lettuce, grapes, pineapple. His four-year-old son, Teco, comes up behind and presses ‘M&Ms’, pointing at a table behind me where, just visible, there is indeed a bag of the sweets.
Smart kid — he’ll go far.
‘Do you like M&Ms, Kanzi?’ I ask. Kanzi shoots me a withering look — one of many — that seems to say ‘What sort of bloody idiotic question is that?’
Kanzi, now 33, has been fully immersed in the human world, and the English language, since birth. Scientists who have studied Kanzi all his life say he possesses a vocabulary big enough to follow and contribute to simple conversations.
For years, this remarkable creature has been changing the way we humans think about our relatives in the animal world
He has learned to ‘say’ about 500 words through the keyboard and understands about 3,000 of them. Equally importantly, he was the first primate who didn’t acquire language through direct training.
Instead, much like a human child, he picked it up simply by listening as researchers tried to teach his foster mother. (Teco is now doing the same by watching his father.)
Through a mixture of observation and encouragement, Kanzi has also picked up an astonishing set of manual skills.
He can cook, make knives out of stone and play the arcade game Pac-Man (he can get past the first round — a feat beyond many humans). He and his similarly talented late sister, Panbanisha, once even jammed with British rock star Peter Gabriel, playing along on a keyboard as the former Genesis man played a synthesizer.