Something of an identity crisis is facing Central Washington University’s Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute, which is down to just two chimps, Loulis and Tatu.

The two remaining chimpanzees in the program, which is famous for teaching sign language to primates, could end up leaving Ellensburg. Or, some new friends could be moving in.

Chimpanzee advocates want to see Loulis, a 34-year-old male, and Tatu, a 36-year-old female, live out the rest of their lives in their 7,000-square-foot home on campus. But there’s the question of funding and how money is allocated in times of shrinking college budgets. And just what is the program’s mission?

It’s more than a dilemma, said CWU Public Affairs Director Linda Schactler. “It’s a very complicated issue,” she said.

Founded in 1980 by Roger and Deborah Fouts, pioneer researchers in chimpanzee communication who are now retired, the institute seeks to increase the understanding of both human and chimpanzee communication. No doubt the most famous resident was Washoe, who was the first nonhuman in history to acquire a human language. She learned American Sign Language and in turn taught it to Loulis before she died in 2007.

For years, the institute has conducted one-hour workshops on weekends from March through November to explain its mission of protecting chimpanzees, both captive and in the wild. Called chimposiums (a blend of chimpanzee and symposium), the idea is to demonstrate the similarities between humans and chimpanzees and how humans can impact the treatment of great apes around the world.

What brought the future of the institute into question was the death last November of Dar, who was 36.

At its height, the center housed five chimpanzees, considered an adequate number for companionship and social interaction. But having just two chimpanzees is not ideal.

“Chimpanzees are very social creatures,” Schactler noted. “They’re used to groups of up to 120.”

Institute Director Mary Lee Jensvold agreed. “(Tatu and Loulis) have to be around more chimpanzees; they must be around them. It’s not healthy just for two.”

So, it’s either move Tatu and Loulis to a sanctuary with other chimpanzees — the closest is in Cle Elum — and leave the institute without its eponymous attractions, or bring in several new chimpanzees, who are now kept as pets or used in the entertainment industry, to bolster the center.

A third option, letting Tatu and Loulis live out their lives in Ellensburg without new companionship, isn’t viable, said Jensvold. Nor would she support moving the two current chimpanzees before bringing in several new ones.

The university Cabinet, comprised of President James Gaudino and three vice presidents, will make the ultimate decision. Cabinet members are scheduled to hear the pros and cons of each option Wednesday from Kirk Johnson, dean of the College of the Sciences, who has been gathering input from community members, faculty and students. It’s unclear when the Cabinet will reach a conclusion.

Last week, the faculty senate polled its approximately 50 members about various options concerning the institute’s future. A preliminary total showed that 26 senators thought the current chimpanzee population should be increased to five, with 12 senators saying Tatu and Loulis should be moved to an approved sanctuary. Senators on other campuses had not yet voted, and others abstained.

Said Senate Chairwoman Melody Madlem: “The senate is divided on this.”

In March, members of the student academic senate voted not to draft a letter to support the institute. Students expressed several concerns: if new chimpanzees could assimilate with older ones, whether it would cost too much to accommodate new ones, and if continued research is needed.

However, Jensvold and other chimpanzee advocates are firmly in favor of adding new, younger chimpanzees — probably three, although there’s room for five — at the facility.

Introducing new chimpanzees is a delicate process; they can’t just be sent in with handshakes all around. Territorial and behavioral issues take time; first the primates would have to be housed in separate quarters before they could live side by side. Jensvold estimates it would take several months to integrate chimpanzees fully into the center and become part of Loulis and Tatu’s “family.”

As with many issues in higher education, money is a concern. To adequately house new chimpanzees, the building would need a $1.9 million remodel.

That amount is included in a pool of funds, called minor works preservation projects, that CWU requested from the Legislature last summer. Schactler said about 40 projects, costing about $6.7 million, were part of the request. It’s not clear how much, if any, of the money will be allocated by the time the regular session ends in late April.

It costs $432,298 to operate the institute each year. Central, which owns the building, covers about $280,000. Jensvold said Friends of Washoe, a nonprofit support group that owns the chimpanzees, funds most of the rest. If new chimpanzees are brought in, the Friends would need to raise money for their care.

Schactler suggested one possibility would be to operate the institute as an academic and visitor center without chimpanzees. “There could still be research relying on archival material. The nature of research, education and tourism would change, but that doesn’t mean research would come to an end.”

But that option doesn’t sit well with chimpanzee advocates.

“I didn’t come here to look at videos,” said Kaeley Sullins, a first-year graduate student. “I came to do care giving and interact one-on-one with the chimpanzees.”

A native of Watsonville, Calif., Sullins said she chose Central because of its undergraduate and graduate opportunities to study primates. According to Jensvold, CWU offers the only master’s in primate behavior in the country. About 25 undergraduate interns also get experience caring for the chimpanzees.

Sullins said she’s discouraged that there might not be any chimpanzees during her second year of graduate work. “In all honesty, I don’t know what I’d do. I might take a fast track out.”

Jensvold, a professor of anthropology at Central, indicated she wouldn’t want to direct an institute without chimpanzees and would probably end up teaching more regular classes.

She recently polled the nine graduate students in the primate behavior program to see how many would still have come to Central if there had been no chimpanzees there.

“Only one raised her hand,” she said.

If the university decides not to remodel the institute, Jensvold said the Friends of Washoe would no doubt elect to move Tatu and Loulis to a sanctuary. But everyone agrees that, too, is not without obstacles.

Tatu and Loulis are old, which makes relocating stressful, said Jensvold.

Moving them, however, would be preferable to their staying in a facility with no other chimpanzees, but it would be a short-sighted choice, she said.

“This has been a very successful program. It brings students in and garners a lot of notoriety for the school,” Jensvold pointed out. “What does it tell students about teaching if at the end of (the chimpanzees’) lives, we cast them off?”

To graduate student Sullins, transferring Tatu and Loulis would be a sad alternative: “It makes me feel a little sick to think about them moving and having to reintegrate somewhere else.”

She further argued that it’s counterintuitive not to make the institute available to additional chimpanzees.

“There are more than 1,000 chimps in the United States that need sanctuary. It doesn’t make sense not to provide a home for some of them.”

Schactler agreed that the welfare of the two remaining chimps has to be a priority. But she questions how much research is being conducted at the institute, saying it may not be as robust as it once was.

“She (Jensvold) teaches a high level of sanctuary care, but there’s a fundamental policy question. What’s the appropriate function of an academic unit? Is it serving as a sanctuary or generating tourism or being a research facility?”

Jensvold vigorously disagreed that there isn’t ongoing research. All graduate students are expected to conduct research under the broad umbrella of communication, whether it’s applied, natural or sign language, she said.

Six graduate students presented their work at an anthropology conference in Portland 10 days ago. Areas being delved into include variations in how signs are “pronounced” by chimpanzees, how their gestures are sequenced and the quantifying of best methods for caring for chimpanzees.

After graduation, students have gone on to get Ph.D.’s, work in sanctuaries and zoos and get degrees in animal law, Jensvold said.

Sullins thinks misunderstandings may have arisen over the kind of research conducted at the institute. Last fall, a National Institutes of Health committee recommended that more than 300 chimpanzees used in government-funded laboratories no longer be used for biomedical research and instead be retired to sanctuaries.

As Sullins pointed out, “The recommendation was to end biomedical research, not the noninvasive type done at CWU. Ours is all behavior. The chimpanzees can choose to participate or can walk away. I wouldn’t have come here if it had been any other kind of research.”

Clearly in Sullins’ view, the best option would be to increase the capacity for research at the institute by integrating in more chimpanzees.

In fact, she said, that would provide “a tremendous amount of information and an amazing chance for observation and data collection.”

Schactler knows that no option is without pitfalls.

“This is a lovely program that we’ve loved for many years, and that makes it even more difficult.”

• Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or jgargas@yakimaherald.com.