The Sad Story of Nim Chimpsky

The Sad Story of Nim Chimpsky

Project Nim
a documentary by James Marsh
Red Box Films, 93 min.

THERE’S SOMETHING a little too clever, a little too cute, about the name that Dr. Herbert Terrace bestowed on the subject of his doomed ape language experiment: Nim Chimpsky. The name is of course a pun on Noam Chomsky, the linguist and most-cited academic author alive, who in the middle of the twentieth century was allowed to set the arbitrary goalposts determining what language “is” and “is not.” Herb Terrace’s experiment was one of several sign language experiments with apes throughout the sixties and seventies that sought to test Chomsky’s assertion that language is a uniquely human capacity. Chomsky is never directly mentioned in Academy Award-winning director James Marsh’s documentary film Project Nim, since it focuses on, well, the human interests of Nim’s story more than on the science of it. But the punny frivolousness of the name Herb Terrace gave Nim Chimpsky is perhaps an indication of how seriously he took into account the emotional life of his subject: that is, not at all. Someone who respects another being as a thinking and feeling consciousness with a complex inner life does not give him a whimsical joke for a name. That’s why we give silly names to our cats and serious ones (Frank Zappa notwithstanding) to our children. Nim’s name was one of the smaller indignities, and only the first, that he was to suffer in a life full of suffering, and that is primarily what Marsh’s touching, disquieting film is about.

Based on Elizabeth Hess’s very excellent 2008 book on the subject, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, Project Nim chronicles the titular chimpanzee’s relatively short and chaotic life, beginning with his birth in Norman, Oklahoma in 1973. The project was at the time the most ambitious experiment in ape language to date. There had been several previous failed language experiments with apes that attempted to teach them spoken language, and, correctly reasoning that nonhuman apes physiologically cannot produce the same range of vocal sounds as humans, University of Nevada psychologists Allen and Beatrice Gardner had the idea to attempt imparting sign language to a chimpanzee, which they began to do with the female chimp Washoe in 1967. But Washoe was already several years old when the Gardners’ research began. Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University behavioral psychologist (who still teaches and conducts research at Columbia) and the grand architect of the project, planned to raise a chimpanzee in a human home, with no other contact with other chimpanzees, and begin instructing him in sign language from infancy. Days after his birth, Terrace scooped up the infant Nim, flew him to New York, and had him placed, like a foster child, in the home of the LaFarges, asking the family to instruct the chimp in American Sign Language. Not a single member of the household was fluent, or even competent, in sign language. The LaFarges were wealthy, eccentric hippies—W.E.R., a pony-tailed and put-upon poet, and Stephanie, a former student and lover of Terrace’s—with a Brady-Bunch-sized family who lived in a brownstone on the Upper West Side. And wait—it gets weirder.

Herb Terrace quickly emerges as the arch villain of Marsh’s narrative. The film left me wondering whether Terrace gave thought to how negatively he would come out looking when he consented to filmed interviews; if so, then his gameness is, I suppose, commendable. The film certainly wouldn’t be the same without him. Pretty much unanimously disliked by every other voice in the documentary, it doesn’t take much to paint his character as irresponsible, opportunistic, incompetent, cruel, cowardly, disloyal, pitifully vain, and given to using his authority to have sex with his students—at one point to the detriment, almost certainly, of the project. Laura-Ann Petitto, the most important and involved of Nim’s teachers and caregivers, left the project after Terrace abruptly broke off an affair with her (Petitto was eighteen when she began working on the project). “It wasn’t the chimp I had problems with,” she says, “it was the humans.”

Terrace became one of the most powerful enemies of ape language research when he declared in a 1979 paper in Science, and a book that followed, that Project Nim, and by extension all animal language experiments, were bunkum—the wishful thinking of sloppy scientists deceived by their subjects’ clever and complex ways of begging for treats. Terrace’s public surrender to Chomsky rendered ape language research difficult to fund for everyone else in the small field for a generation, an about-face that felt especially treacherous considering Terrace’s own sloppy science, relatively minimal hands-on participation in the experiment, and preening penchant for camera-hogging. Billy Tynan, one of Nim’s early caregivers, describes Terrace as “an absentee landlord” who only occasionally showed up at the rambling Georgian estate in the Bronx where Nim was kept after he outgrew his first human family in the LaFarge’s Upper West brownstone—often with cameramen, or the press. Whenever cameras were rolling, Terrace made sure he was in the picture.

Ironically, it’s Terrace’s shallow theatricality that resulted in such a wealth of fascinating footage for the filmmakers to mine. Some of the most amazing moments of the film are the results of his posturing photo-ops with Nim. After only five years, Terrace abruptly abandoned the experiment, in part because of liability issues surrounding Nim’s increasingly uncontrollable violence (“I was probably afraid she would sue me,” he bluntly says of an incident in which Nim severely injured Renee Falitz, a sign language interpreter who worked on the project), and Nim was unceremoniously tranquilized and flown back to his birthplace on the farm in Oklahoma—a place now infamous among captive ape researchers for its primitiveness and brutality. Cramped metal cages, guns, barbed wire, cattle prods—this was a place where chimps were treated like animals, or prisoners, not as human children. Terrace, of course, brings the cameras, resulting in some beautiful, genuinely touching footage of Nim meeting another chimpanzee for the first time in his life. The saddest moment of the film comes when Terrace—who spent years spoiling Nim with attention and luxury only to suddenly abandon him to the life of a captive animal—returns to Oklahoma a year later for a visit; we see Nim recognize Terrace, and explode with obvious joy, rushing to hug him. Bob Ingersoll, a raspy-voiced hippie who comes across as a saintly presence in the second half of Nim’s life, says of Nim seeing Terrace again that he was thinking, “Holy shit! I’m goin’ back to New York!” But it’s only a show for the cameras. Terrace left the next day, never to be seen again by Nim, and Nim fell into a deep depression.

Things go from bad to worse after that, as the story gets darker and sadder. Nim is sold into medical experimentation, from which he’s improbably rescued only to wind up at a convalescent home for psychologically damaged equine animals run by a well-meaning but clueless animal rights activist who has no idea how to care for a chimp—a single chimp, alone: a hellish experience for a highly social primate like a chimpanzee or a human. We watch Nim sit alone in a dim, dank concrete room like Ivan Denisovich in the gulag, or dejectedly playing with a cardboard box, or shoving a steel barrel around on the floor with the aimless mania of severe cabin fever. I would like to think these images capable of testing the empathy reserves of even the staunchest human exceptionalists.

Project Nim, despite such compelling stuff, has its share of aesthetic flaws. There’s the overt psychological manipulation typical of this sort of documentary, by use of invasive music and cheesy, disingenuous “recreations” that braver, more interesting, and more honest documentary filmmakers avoid. The original footage of Nim is so amazing that I quite often found myself wishing it were presented in a rawer, less packaged context. Nim’s footage from the seventies is fascinating enough; to paste these scenes together with dramatic recreations is quite unnecessary, and a little insulting to the viewer’s intelligence.

But the film about Nim that I’d like to see—one that searches out the scientific and philosophical implications of his story—hasn’t yet been made. Instead, this film focuses almost exclusively on the human elements of the story, which I suppose is natural. Stephanie LaFarge’s daughter, Jenny Lee, describing the bizarre situation, sighs and laughs that “It was the seventies.” Boy, was it—Project Nim was a product of its time, which not only affects the distinctive look of the movie—the grainy, over-bright footage of chimp handlers in breezy blouses and Indian braids, sneakers and knee socks, bellbottoms and sideburns—but gives one the impression that this story could not have happened in just this way at any other time in our cultural history; an almost appalling sense of permissiveness, a druggy fog of reckless hedonism envelops this story nearly as much as—oh, I don’t know, Boogie Nights? On the one hand, at times it looks like a lot of fun. But the contemporary viewer will wonder how much serious scientific inquiry was going on in an environment in which it seems everyone was sleeping with everyone, and Nim was, since the very beginning, allowed to get as drunk and high as his merry human caretakers. Getting animals baked has long been a staple stoner pastime (for example, blowing pot smoke into the hamster cage), but to watch a chimpanzee smoking a joint produces a feeling that rides the line between hilarious and disturbing. That line is traditionally where a lot of chimp behavior falls for the human observer; because chimpanzees are so close to us, we tend to find it amusingly incongruous to mock that sliver of biological difference between us by, for example, dressing them up in clown clothes and teaching them to ride tricycles—the grotesque stuff of the circus. Thus we push chimps away from us. Through ridicule, we magnify that less than 2 percent difference into a gulf.

But when a chimp uses signs—language, or what-you-will—to communicate to a human that he wants a hit off that joint, pinches it in his fingers, and puts it to his lips to take a enthusiastic puff for the same reason we would—to get high—then suddenly it’s not so funny anymore. To see an animal display such vulnerable, joyful, and dissipated human behavior is a profoundly unsettling feeling; it’s a feeling that prods a bit at deep, fascinating questions about animals, ourselves, and the very nature of consciousness—the kind of questions that Project Nim came close to asking, should have asked, could have asked, and didn’t. What a waste of an opportunity, and what a waste of a life. “We did a huge disservice to that soul,” says Joyce Butler, another of Nim’s original teachers. “And shame on us.”

Benjamin Hale is the author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.

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