Are we alone in the universe? Are human beings the sole source of intelligence, the only ones capable of rational thought and self-reflection, in all of existence?
These questions have dogged homo sapiens since the species walked out of Africa. The search for answers has taken many forms. Some turn wondering eyes to the stars in search of alien life-forms. Others pursue worlds beyond this one, reaching into the void to connect with spirits of the afterlife. And once, in the mid-1970s, the quest for non-human intelligence focused on man’s nearest neighbor in the animal kingdom.
In 1972, an ambitious psychologist from Yale University launched an incredible study designed to bridge the gap between man and animal and prove that chimpanzees could master the art of communication. Believing that high-functioning primates were capable of learning words and syntax, Dr. Piers Preis-Herald acquired a newborn chimpanzee and proceeded to teach him American Sign Language in the hopes of establishing that longed-for link with another intelligent being and thereby unlocking the secrets of a previously unplumbed mind.
What followed has since inspired decades of controversy and speculation and embroiled the attention of psychologists, linguists, ethologists, primatologists, parapsychologists, historians, animal rights activists, teachers, attorneys, clergymen, and other curious minds around the world.
When Chimpanzee #710642 was born at the Kohlberg Center for Primate Research on an autumn morning in 1972 his destiny was vague. Any number of fates might have been his. He could have been sold to a traveling circus and taught to tap dance, like Daisy, who was born just one week earlier. He might have become a guinea pig for the cosmetics industry, like Avery, born three weeks later. And if the chimp christened Webster and later known to the world as Smithy had been born a mere five hours sooner, he would have spent his childhood before Hollywood cameras, as did Goofy, instead of starring in the incredible real-life drama that ultimately ensued.
The Kohlberg Center was then one of five facilities in the United States that bred chimpanzees for distribution throughout the world. Most of the offspring were designated for zoos and laboratories with a small fraction going to the entertainment industry and a more miniscule portion ending up in the exotic pet trade. Applicants desiring a chimpanzee were placed on a lengthy waiting list; barring special requests for characteristics like gender and birth weight, orders were filled on first-come, first-serve basis. Therefore, it was entirely by chance that Smithy entered Dr. Preis-Herald’s orbit.
In light of the incredible outcome of this turn of fortune, many have questioned whether any chimpanzee in his position would have behaved the same way, or whether Smithy himself possessed unique abilities.
Historians are always forced to ask whether the man makes the situation or the situation makes the man. And so it is with man’s nearest relation. Did Smithy’s intellect and other purported gifts trigger the unbelievable and sometimes tragic events of his young life, or was he shaped into an unlikely prophet by a potent and uncontrolled environment? Since it is impossible to separate Smithy from his surroundings or to engage in counterfactual thinking, what remains is to investigate the actual data and identify the strongest conclusion.
Was Smithy a hoax? A clever mimic? A helpless animal caught in the machinations of selfish humans and nearly crushed by them? Was he the harbinger of a new era of interspecies—and possibly interdimensional—relations? Was he an illusion? A Rorschach projection of humanity’s greatest hopes—and fears? Or was he indeed what devotees of metaphysics have claimed for so long: a link between our world and the beyond?
In the chapters that follow, I review the most complete collection to date of primary source documents: letters, journals, interviews, video and court transcripts, and related media. Included publicly for the first time anywhere are first-hand accounts by the principals in the case and details of never-before-released film footage. In addition, I present insights gleaned from my own small part in what came to be the greatest mystery of the modern age.
The world may never know the truth about Smithy, but as it is human nature to seek answers about the nature of life, so we must boldly sally forth into the unknown with open eyes and open minds. Let the journey of inquiry commence!
Reid Bennett, Ph. D.
May 10, 1995