Chimpanzee study garners accolades for UTPB psychology faculty


UTPB Department of Psychology Chair Dr. Linda M. Montgomery (far left) joins President and CEO of Chimp Haven, Cathy Spraetz, and UTPB Psychology Professor Dr. James Olson. The trio is fresh from a reunion with between Olson and chimpanzee Sarah. Olson sports attire he wore as a young man when last seeing Sarah, including the letter “J” around his neck that symbolized his name to Sarah.

Staff Reports , Staff Reporter

At the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB) Psychology Professor Dr. James “Jim” N. Olson is known as a founding faculty member of the University. But how many know that he worked as a “trainer” for twenty months with a six-year-old African born chimpanzee at the University of California at Santa Barbara? And who knew that he would meet up with this chimpanzee again in 2016 hoping for some recognition from the intelligent female Pan troglodyte?

According to Olson, “Sarah worked in psychological research for decades and contributed greatly in the study of language and cognition. She participated in countless experiments, lived in an enriched environment, and made a significant impact on both the researchers and research.”

Although Olson writes as if he is speaking of a fellow researcher or university colleague, he is speaking of someone with first name and middle name only –Sarah Ann.

He is speaking of (a now fifty-six-year old chimpanzee) named “Sarah” who met Dr. Olson as a trainer when she was six years old and learning language education under the tutelage of David Premack. Olson was twenty-one years old at the time. Premack operated a language and symbolic reasoning lab. Olson, recently—combining strategies with Linda M. Montgomery, UTPB Department Chair of the Psychology Department, found the current location of Sarah. They then collaborated on the paper “Finding Sarah: 49 Year Reunion with the Chimpanzee of David Premack’s Language Studies.” The paper was published in the May 17, 2017, Review of General Psychology. In addition, the reviews are already coming in positive from fellow scholars.

“What Premack set out to do was to use aspects of human language to demonstrate cognition and symbolic reasoning in the chimpanzee” not just imitation, according to Olson in the first page of his journal article.  Olson spent almost two years with Sarah in language interactions.

Montgomery found Sarah through an article in the New York Times In 2011 and made the suggestion that she and Olson should go to Chimp Haven in order to see the chimpanzee in Keithville, Louisiana, located approximately 25 miles south of Shreveport. In addition, the professors were notified that “Sarah’s health was failing, she had just been diagnosed with chronic renal failure.”

Olson reunited with Sarah in Summer 2016 at “Chimp Haven,” a national sanctuary for chimpanzees that were involved in and used in biomedical research, the entertainment industry, or became unwanted pets. This leads us to another now widely unknown fact concerning Olson. He was a surfer. When he became a “language instructor” for the chimpanzees, he developed symbols that stood in place for words by molding surfboard resin into shapes that symbolized words. For example, a black propeller-shaped object signified “correct.”

In 2016, for a reunion with Sarah, He showed up in surfer attire, sporting the letter “J” that had symbolized his name as “Jim” almost a half of century ago. Talking to Sarah through a wire mesh screen, Sarah noticed Dr. Olson and came forth to the screen. “Sarah had made eye contact with me … during her deliberate but slow walk over to me she made [what her caretakers described] as pleasure pantings (and previous vocalizations).

Olson began showing letters and treats, although Sarah had forgotten some words, she gamely pointed to those that had meaning.

“It’s clear that Sarah wanted to be a part of the procedure, the “game,” the article states “…Even though she [the chimpanzee] was ill, she seemed to be saying, ‘I know you, Jim. And I’d like to hang out with you doing what we used to do.”

Montgomery said:  “Sarah actually was interested and ‘volunteered’ for the work with Jim that afternoon; we were not allowed to ‘force’ her to do anything.  It was a special experience—Sarah remembered how to play the game, and worked with Jim for two hours.  She was attentive and knowing.  It was an awesome experience for all of us, including Sarah!”

Olson relates: “With my moment of eye contact, I was cast back to the past. Same face, same studied eye contact….It was like I was at UC Santa Barbara again with my old pal….just Sarah and me, kicking back!  Just like old times. It was great.