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American Routes Shortcuts: David Watts

David Watts
Stephanie Anestis
David Watts

From our archives, it’s a visit with Yale anthropologist David Watts, an old friend of mine. David loves jazz and plays classical violin, but his true virtuosity is in the savannas and rain forests of East Africa, where he has long walked and worked gracefully among wild primates. David's been in it long enough that he's named many of his wild-primate colleagues after movie stars, classical composers, and jazz musicians. I asked him why we are so attracted to gorillas, monkeys and chimps.

David Watts: Because we see ourselves in them. And if you were to look at a gorilla, for example, or a chimpanzee, you wouldn’t mistake that gorilla or chimpanzee for your next-door neighbor. And you look at their faces, and their noses don’t look like ours, and they’ve got more hair than most of us do. Yet you look into their eyes, and it’s like looking into the eyes of another person. You are looking at another person. They have personalities. They are individually distinct, and they have all these humanlike qualities, and we see those. I used to give public talks about the gorillas sometimes, and put up a slide of a female gorilla we had named Jenny, and I would casually say, “This is Jenny, she’s the one I’m gonna marry.” It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her.

Nick Spitzer: No prospects I guess of getting married to Jenny then at this point.

DW: No, well I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that she preferred Titus anyway. Titus is an adult male gorilla.

NS: You mainly have exercised your chance to name the animals working with chimpanzees. What are some of the names that you came up with?

DW: Coltrane, Miles, Monk.

NS: Jazzmen.

DW: Jazzmen. And women. Sarah, like Sarah Vaughan.

NS: Why jazz musicians?

DW: I was doing research on wild primates, and for whatever reasons, for convenience of helping myself and other people to identify them, also to sort of dignify them by recognizing their individuality, their distinctive personalities, I decided I wanted to name them after people who were important to me, and I love jazz. In a few cases, I think, when I look back on it, it was just I wanted to use the name, and I decided, okay he gets it. In a few cases I consciously tried to match name and whoever received that name. In the case of Coltrane, I thought of John Coltrane as this towering figure in the history of jazz and the history of American music and this leader, this powerful force. And there was one male chimpanzee who was the biggest male at Ngogo and was just beautiful, so imposing, and I decided, if I want to name someone after John Coltrane, he deserves it. Sadly Coltrane like his namesake, died young, so that left Miles as arguably the biggest chimp at Ngogo. He was young when we first got to know him, and he ended up being huge.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.