Chimpanzees have rich imaginary lives. Chimps who use American Sign Language have been observed signing to inanimate objects and engaging them as if they were live social partners. For example, a chimpanzee named Dar was once seen signing “tickle” to a stuffed bear that he was playing with. I personally recall (and will never, ever forget) watching a chimpanzee named Moja don a curly blonde wig and look at herself in the mirror while signing “pretty” to her reflection.
Foxie was never taught sign language, but language isn’t a requirement for imaginary play.
Nor is imaginary play limited to chimpanzees raised in human environments. In the wild, young chimpanzees have been seen carrying sticks as rudimentary dolls and caring for them as if they were their own offspring. Are they simply expressing a desire to be more grown up? Could it be an instinctual form of practice to prepare them for motherhood? Whatever the motivation, it is probably not much different than our own.
What’s so interesting about Foxie is that the objects of her imaginary play are often not chimpanzee-like at all. Foxie is occasionally given chimpanzee dolls but she rejects them in favor of Troll dolls or Dora the Explorer dolls. And when she plays with Dora, she treats her more as a human than as a chimp. Note how she stands Dora bipedally (on two legs) instead of quadrupedally like a chimpanzee, even though Dora would stand upright just as well on all fours.
We can never truly know what a chimpanzee is thinking, but we certainly know that they are thinking. And imaginary play gives us a tantalizing peek into what those thoughts might be.