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What a Chimp Teaches Us About Humans

"Project Nim," a documentary film examining the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who learned to communicate with people using sign language, reveals more about people than other primates.
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A cautionary tale about scientific hubris and overreaching that plays like a Planet of the Apes prequel, Oscar-winning (for Man On Wire) director James Marsh’s latest film, Project Nim, is about a chimp who learned to sign.

A major media story back in the late ‘70s, the story of Nim Chimpsky began when he was taken from his mother at a primate research center in Oklahoma and given to a New York family to be raised as a human. The experiment was the brainchild of Herb Terrace, a Columbia University psychology professor, who felt if the simian could be taught sign language, he might be able to express his thoughts and feelings.

Unfortunately, Nim was initially left with the family of Stephanie LaFarge, a former student (and lover) of Terrace’s, who didn’t seem to see surrogate motherhood as a scientific project but preferred to raise Nim in a chaotic, countercultural atmosphere (where he was given alcohol and allowed puffs on a joint) without bothering to provide any journals or logbooks charting his progress. “We enjoyed letting him hang out and see how it went,” says LaFarge of the way she parented Nim. But, she adds, in one of several "D’oh!" moments scattered throughout the film, “I wasn’t prepared for the wild animal in him.”

So Terrace took Nim from LaFarge and moved him to a Columbia facility where he was taught and nurtured by a series of scientists and sign language experts. His signing began “exponentially increasing” (Nim eventually learned 125 signs), and after New York magazine published a cover story titled “First Message From the Planet of the Apes,” so did his fame.

But as Nim grew, he became dangerous. He started biting people, at one point almost ripping off the entire right cheek of one of his teachers, which leads Laura-Ann Pettito, one of the chimp’s instructors, to note in the film that, “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that can kill you.”

From that point on, Project Nim moves from cautionary tale to animal horror story. Nim’s aggressiveness, which was also becoming sexual — he started humping the humans and a pet cat — forced Terrace to close the experiment. Nim was shipped back to the Oklahoma facility, where he had to learn to socialize with other chimps. Then the primate center, strapped for cash, sold Nim to an NYU center that tested vaccines on animals, where the director readily admitted that “there’s no way to carry out research on animals and for it to be humane.”

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Luckily, Nim had a human friend in a Bob Ingersoll, an Oklahoma student who had worked with him at the primate center and who convinced a slick trial lawyer to represent the chimp in an animal cruelty lawsuit. That case never went to court but led to Nim being sold to the noted animal rights activist Cleveland Amory, who shipped him to a Texas ranch primarily populated by abused equines.

Nim ultimately found peace in his old age with others of his kind and died in 2000 at the age of 26. But Project Nim lingers in the mind for all sorts of reasons, none more important than the ”playing God” aspects of the research and what seems to be a curious case of cluelessness on the part of the people involved.

Whether or not it’s important to find out if animals can be taught to communicate like humans is a question the film refuses to answer. It’s obvious we communicate with animals already, as anyone who has ever had a pet can attest. But what’s the ultimate goal of this research? To create simians as intelligent as Cornelius and Dr. Zira? To discover the difference between human and animal cognition? Or is it simply a way to justify a large research grant? There’s a certain hubristic zeal to the enterprise that comes off as distasteful.

Further, knowing that Nim would grow up to be large and aggressive — in other words, a normal chimp — puts the experiment in another light. Terrace admits “no one keeps a chimp for more than five years,” so treating him like a human, then dumping him when he’s of no further use, is not just insensitive, but it also looks like a sophisticated form of animal cruelty. Not that Terrace will cop to this — he ultimately describes Project Nim as a failure, noting blithely that “knowing words doesn’t mean you can string them together.”

You could also add that knowing how to teach an animal to sign doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to treat him humanely. In Planet of the Apes, head simian scientist Dr. Zaius declares that “to suggest that we can learn anything about the simian nature from a study of man is sheer nonsense.” But Project Nim suggests that by studying chimps, we might learn more about human nature than we really want to know.

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