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Profile in Primatology: Sally Boysen

Updated on August 12, 2008

Sally Boysen is a tenured professor of psychology at the The Ohio State University. She specializes in numerical abilities of non-humans. She has published countless scholarly articles on this subject and is well recognized in her field.

Notable publications include:

Boysen, S.T. & Berntson, G.G. (1989b). Conspecific recognition in the chimpanzee: Cardiac responses to significant others. J. of Comparative Psychology, 103, 215-220.

Boysen, S.T. & Berntson, G.G. (1990). The emergence of numerical competence in the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). In: Language and intelligence in animals: Developmental perspectives. S.T. Parker & K.R. Gibson (Eds.). Cambridge University Press.

Povinelli, D.J., Nelson, K.E. & Boysen, S.T. (1990). Inferences about guessing and knowing by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 104, 203-210.

Boysen, S.T. (In press) Pongid pedagogy: The contribution of human/chimpanzee interaction to the study of ape cognition. In: The Inevitable Bond: Examining Scientist-Animal Interaction. H. Davis & D. Balfour (Eds.). Cambridge University Press.

Outside acamadic circles, Sally Boysen is also quite well known. Not too long ago, the Discovery Channel aired a special on some of her work with chimpanzees and literacy. The program was called Keeli and Ivey: Chimps Like Us. It was ably narrated by former Frasier star, Kelsey Grammer.

You can read more about the program and also watch a trailer if you follow the links below.

Despite all this success, Sally Boysen and her chimps suffered a tragic setback when, in February of 2006, the Ohio State University closed down her lab, without prior warning, changing all the locks, and had her chimpanzees transported forcibly to a chimpanzee sanctuary.

This was supposedly done because Professor Boysen had not secured enough funding for her lab to continue functioning. Read about what happened in her own words in the link below.

Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think

One of the chimpanzees died on arrival at the sanctuary chosen by OSU. Another died sometime thereafter. A monkey transported with the group escaped into the Texas wilderness never to be heard from again.

A custody fight ensued, in which it was decided by the judge to transport the remaining chimpanzees to yet another sanctuary, where eventually the last remaining male of the group also died.

Following another legal skirmish, the surviving chimpanzees were sent back to the first sanctuary. The second sanctuary is appealing this order.

Without taking a stand on which sanctuary is better, it is sufficient to note that if Sally Boysen had remained in custody of them, then none of the chimps need have died prematurely, and the public would not be concerned about the whereabouts of the missing monkey.

What happened to Sally Boysen is not an isolated event. It is part of an ongoing campaign against researchers who work hands-on with great apes. Public funding for this research is being reduced. Even when private funds are made available, universities are being pressured not to allow researchers to accept the funds. When researchers try to move their apes to a private foundation, they can lose the right to go into the enclosures where the apes live. Many private foundations are run by people with zoo experience who believe that direct interaction with apes is not safe.

Sally Boysen needs our support. She is a primatologist under fire.

(c) 2008 Aya Katz


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    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      6 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks for your comment, Thomas Kirby.

    • profile image

      Thomas Kirby 

      6 years ago

      They treat people like this and prove themselves to be absolutely wrong about what they promote.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Kayak Kate, the ability to count can be useful for non-humans as well as humans.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Maggs, thanks for your support! You're right. The mind boggles. But this is not the only such story. Researchers in the field of ape cognition are struggling to survive, each separately. Often they are too tied up in their own life or death struggle to be able to offer one another assistance or support.

    • maggs224 profile image


      9 years ago from Sunny Spain

      If this were fiction you would have to say unbelievable the mind boggles at how such dumb ignorant people got into a place of such power in a university of all places.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      10 years ago from The Ozarks

      SDorrian, first of all, just posting your comment helps. Some of the people involved may not realize that others care about this subject deeply. The people with decision-making powers in this case may see this as a private struggle between individuals and institutions over funding and control. You can help them to see the bigger picture -- and the lives that have been taken.

      In addition, you could email Dr. Boysen to offer your support, let her know that you care, and ask if you can help.

      If there are enough of us who are willing to work together, we might even file an amicus brief in the court with jurisdiction in this case.

    • sdorrian profile image


      10 years ago from Chicago

      This is so sad. I went to OSU and took Dr. Boysen's class on Primate Psychology. She was a great teacher and very passionate about her work. I had no idea that her lab had been shut down. Those poor chimps must have been terrified when they were taken away. It's tragic that they died after being moved. The work done by scientists like Dr. Boysen has been revolutionary and has changed the way many people view animals. We now know that animals are thinking, feeling beings - more aware than anyone would have previously thought. What can people do to help?


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