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The Chimp That Learned Sign Language

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The Chimp That Learned Sign Language


The Chimp That Learned Sign Language

The Chimp That Learned Sign Language

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When Nim Chimpsky arrived at her house in 1973, Jenny Lee says that "it was probably love at first sight." Harry Benson hide caption

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Harry Benson

When Nim Chimpsky arrived at her house in 1973, Jenny Lee says that "it was probably love at first sight."

Harry Benson

Nim helps with the dishes in the house he lived in after leaving Stephanie LaFarge's home. Herbert Terrace hide caption

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Herbert Terrace

Nim helps with the dishes in the house he lived in after leaving Stephanie LaFarge's home.

Herbert Terrace

Nim in a "family photo" with Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace and Stephanie LaFarge, Nim's surrogate mother. Harry Benson hide caption

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Harry Benson

Nim in a "family photo" with Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace and Stephanie LaFarge, Nim's surrogate mother.

Harry Benson

Institute for Primate Studies researcher Bob Ingersoll with Nim (left) and another chimp. Ingersoll remembers Nim as a chimp with an "unbelievable personality." Bob Ingersoll hide caption

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Bob Ingersoll

Institute for Primate Studies researcher Bob Ingersoll with Nim (left) and another chimp. Ingersoll remembers Nim as a chimp with an "unbelievable personality."

Bob Ingersoll

Watch Nim Chimpsky Sign

In a 1981 video, Nim Chimpsky signs with Institute of Primate Studies researcher Bob Ingersoll in an Oklahoma park.


Ingersoll's view is very different from Herbert Terrace's when it comes to Nim's language skills. Based on Ingersoll's interactions with Nim, he says he believes that the chimp often spontaneously signed.

In the video, Nim at first signs "look, good, Nim, go, there" — all the while orienting toward where he wants to go. A few moments later, he signs "hug, hug, good, Nim, ride, Nim."


Ingersoll grants part of his Nim's request. Nim jumps on Ingersoll’s back, and they walk off.

Nim signs with Oklahoma researcher Bob Ingersoll.

Back in the 1970s, a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky took part in a Columbia University research study called "Project Nim."

Project Nim was led by Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia who was attempting to find out if a chimpanzee could learn to communicate using American Sign Language.

"Everyone knows that words are learned one at a time," but something happens when children begin to combine words and create true language, Terrace says.

The question, he says, was, "Could Nim do this?"

A newly released book takes a look at the project, and the people involved examine the ethics of the experiment.

The name Nim Chimpsky was a twist on Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist who theorized that language as we know it is unique to humans. Terrace wanted to disprove Chomsky's theory and show that a chimpanzee could develop real language.

To immerse Nim in a world where he would be taught sign language in the same way a human child would, Terrace brought him to live with a family in New York City in 1973, not long after the chimp was born. There, Nim joined a sprawling, chaotic blended family with many human siblings who could teach him sign language.

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Young Nim

Jennie Lee was 10 when Nim came to live with her family.

"He was coming off the plane with my mom, wrapped up in baby blankets," Lee says. "He was this tiny newborn being who happened to be a chimp, and it was probably love at first sight."

Nim's surrogate mother was Stephanie LaFarge, a psychology student studying with Terrace. LaFarge carried Nim around on her body for almost two years.

It wasn't easy to raise a chimp in a Manhattan brownstone. Nim was active, playful and strong. Soon he was breaking things all over the house. LaFarge's husband was never comfortable with Nim, and as Nim entered his "terrible twos," the chimp became too much of a handful.

So Terrace took Nim to live in a mansion that was part of Columbia University. By that time, Nim had learned about 125 signs. But the question remained: Was he really learning language?

Terrace doubts it. He says that while watching a video of Nim signing with a teacher, he realized that the chimp was tracking most of his teacher's signs, imitating most of them, but he almost never made a sign spontaneously.

In the end, Terrace came to believe that Chomsky was right, that Nim would never use language the way humans do — to form sentences and express ideas.

Terrace ended the project in 1977, and Nim went to the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Okla., to live a very different life. He was often in a cage with other chimps.

Bob Ingersoll, who worked at the institute and got close to Nim, says that while in Oklahoma, Nim was learning how to be a chimp again. "He was with his brothers. He got to have a chimp group" and have a life that wasn't always controlled by humans, Ingersoll says.

One of the things that made Nim remarkable, Ingersoll remembers, was his "unbelievable personality." Nim understood humans better than any other chimp, Ingersoll recalls.

The Chimp Who Would Be Human

Research is not a secure proposition, and in 1981, all funding ended for the Oklahoma research program. There was no exit plan for the chimps.

Within a year, Nim was sold to a medical lab for tuberculosis studies. Because he was a famous chimp — who even appeared on Sesame Street and The David Susskind Show— Nim's supporters were able to rescue him. He lived out the rest of his days at Cleveland Amory's Black Beauty Ranch, an animal sanctuary in Texas. He died in 2000.

Many of the people involved in Nim's life have been reflecting on their experiences and on the ethics of what they did.

And Elizabeth Hess, in a new book called Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, interviews many of the people who were involved in Nim's life and tells the story from differing perspectives

Lee, Nim's surrogate sister, says she took it hard when Nim was sold to the lab.

"How do you reconcile a tiny chimp in blue blankets, drinking from a bottle and wearing Pampers. Those are the baby pictures," she says. "And then, when he is 10 — him in a lab, in a cage, with nothing soft, nothing warm, with no people? This is my brother. This is somebody that I raised — and that the system could let this happen was shocking."

LaFarge, Nim's surrogate mother, says that as amazing as it was to have the experience with Nim, she now believes what happened was unethical. The project essentially tricked "him into thinking he is a human being, with no plan for protecting him," she says.

But Terrace says that "given that people eat meat, have pets and raise horses for races," what was done to Nim was not unethical.

Author Hess says Nim was a survivor who had a unique, charming personality.

She notes that while the debate over whether chimps have language, and what kind of language, continues, most researchers are no longer trying to teach animals our language. Instead, they focus on the myriad ways animals communicate.

Excerpt: 'Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human'

Nim Chimpsky Cover Art

Chapter One: Early Days on the Chimp Farm

Nim's story begins at the research facility in Oklahoma that was founded by the notorious Dr. William Lemmon. Early in his academic career chimpanzees became the focus of Lemmon's lifelong research, and helped to make him — for a time —the most prominent psychologist in Oklahoma. Over several decades, he authored many of the state's mental health policies, helped to shape numerous public programs, and virtually founded the clinical psychology department at the University of Oklahoma (OU), where he remains a legendary figure thanks to his early chimpanzee experiments. From its inception until its demise, Lemmon ran the Institute for Primate Studies (IPS), the place where Nim Chimpsky was born. Lemmon bred and owned Nim. As a result, the psychologist was responsible, often behind the scenes, for every major event that shaped the chimp's life, both before and after Project Nim.

Virtually everyone who ever had anything to do with Lemmon (Bill, as he was called) or his chimpanzees came away with strong feelings about the psychologist, but what those feelings were varied considerably. Some loved Lemmon, some despised him, and some still won't speak about him at all because it's just too painful. Lemmon, who has been dead for more than two decades, remains a controversial figure in Norman and the wider primate world, where his unconventional methods of animal husbandry and research are often attacked. He ruled his chimpanzees with an electric cattle prod, as many unenlightened keepers still do, and tried every possible disciplinary technique, including shock collars, all kinds of guns, and a pair of Doberman pinschers trained to tree escapees. (This last was not an effective method; the chimps dominated the dogs and ripped one of them apart.) When asked by a friend, "How do you discipline a chimpanzee?" Lemmon responded, "Any way you can."

The chimps learned to respect their keeper. Lemmon's graduate students also understood their place. One claims that he locked her in a cage inhabited by a few adult chimps, just to see her reaction. She survived to tell the story, one of many about the sadistic pleasure Lemmon took in pushing people to the edge. Lemmon's proteges, employees, and patients all worshipped him — or fled.

Still, however much he was feared by both his experimental animals and his students, Lemmon was one of a very few researchers in the 1960s who had any expertise in raising and breeding chimpanzees in captivity, where they rarely survived or reproduced. Lemmon and his carefully selected graduate students studied chimpanzee mating habits, sexuality, and social development, and they even collected data on the personalities of individual chimps. Unfortunately for Lemmon, and for the field in general, little of this research, apart from a handful of articles, was ever published. Lemmon's vast knowledge of chimpanzees mostly benefited those who became members of his prestigious inner circle in Norman. Ultimately, the scientific community labeled his work "anecdotal," their way of deeming it worthless. For better or worse, he was an outsider who was destined to remain on the margins because he refused to maintain his academic status by regularly publishing his results or writing books. In the long run, this arrogance did not serve him or his animals well. But in the short run, it made IPS, known as the "chimp farm," a compelling place for students to cut their teeth on primatology.

Lemmon was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1916. A prodigy of sorts, from a working-class family, he earned his doctorate at Ohio State University, where he studied with Carl Rogers. The promising young psychologist had a background in biology and a passion for the theories of Sigmund Freud. By twenty-eight, Lemmon had married, fathered three children, and become the director of clinics in the psychology department at the University of Maryland. There he fell in love with one of his graduate students and moved on to the next chapter of his life.

Dorothy Lemmon — known as Dottie — met her husband-to-be in a classroom, where she found herself enthralled by his erudite lectures, liberally sprinkled with literary references and stories about his personal experiences. Dottie was said to have had a Mona Lisa smile and a dark, mysterious appeal. After Lemmon divorced his first wife he and Dottie promptly moved to Norman in 1945, where Bill had been offered a position in the department of psychology at OU, and where they had two children, Peter and Sally. Dottie, like her mentor and husband, became a clinical psychologist. But she opened an office at a local mental health center, maintaining as much distance as possible from Lemmon's university sphere. Throughout her life, Dottie's carefully nurtured independence from her powerful husband was critical to her emotional survival. She had her own practice, her own friends, and even her own plants—in a greenhouse where her husband was not welcome to dig around. He had a greenhouse too, separate from hers, where there was more than enough dirt.

However, the greenhouses, as well as the chimpanzees, came later in the marriage, some years after the Lemmons found an affordable farm, which they bought in 1957. Located on the outskirts of Norman, on East Lindsey Road, it was a private paradise just a short distance from the OU campus. The original wooden farmhouse, built in 1907, was far up on a hill, at the end of a long, winding driveway, surrounded by 140 acres of meadows, woods, and ponds. There were few amenities—the house had no bathroom or running water—but the land was spacious and ideal for farm animals, or any other kind of animals. At the time Lemmon bought the farm, animal behavior and comparative psychology had already become the focus of his research, and he envisioned turning the place into a research institute, which he would stock with multiple species. He promptly began to design one, which was constructed over a period of years, as funds became available.

Although Lemmon supplemented his university income with money from a highly successful private practice, as a professor in the 1960s he made a modest salary, so it took some time for his dream to become a reality. Meanwhile, he started to purchase exotic birds and small mammals the way other people buy baseball cards or stamps, grabbing one of each kind to round out their collections. By the early 1960s, the Institute for Primate Studies had come into existence on Lemmon's farm, and moving there enabled the psychologist to add more birds as well as border collies, spider monkeys, gibbons, sheep—and anything else he could get his hands on. Lemmon liked to purchase one or preferably two of each species, Noah's ark-style, so that they would breed and he could scrutinize their mating habits, gestation periods, and physical and psychological details of reproduction. He sold the resulting offspring to other researchers or gave them away to friends. On occasion, he did more elaborate, and less humane, behavioral experiments on his animals. The farm allowed him to be more ambitious. Hidden away from OU, Lemmon had a new sense of freedom.

Over the years, the old wooden farmhouse was transformed into a modern residence covered with a pinkish stucco surface, and other buildings were constructed to house Lemmon's growing menagerie. The animals appeared content and well cared for. The grounds were dotted with jerry-rigged pens and numerous gardens where flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables were plentiful. Both Lemmons were amateur horticulturists, in their separate greenhouses, and the farm, though not a lavish place, had a genuine elegance of sorts, a seedy rustic charm.

Lemmon's popularity as a professor and a psychotherapist grew as rapidly as his farm. Well known on campus for his idiosyncrasies, he was admired by his students for his refusal to conform to convention—in either the academy or his personal life — regardless of the consequences. Even Lemmon's attire challenged university standards. At a time when most OU professors wore jackets and ties to class, Lemmon, a proto-beatnik, wore leather sandals over bare feet and shaved his head; he had wild bushy eyebrows and a well-trimmed goatee. During cold spells, the professor donned a belted trench coat, the collar flipped up, as if he were a spy. Typical OU faculty members dressed up, not down; they also did not keep cobalt-blue hyacinth macaws, the largest species of parrot in the world, in their campus offices.

Not surprisingly, Lemmon was a target from the very beginning of his time in Norman, where everything he did was noticeably different from what other professors were doing. Already in 1946, the dean of the university was asking Lemmon (in a letter on official stationery) to wear socks and shave off his signature goatee, as people were beginning to "think he was eccentric." Lemmon continued to wear his sandals barefoot but immediately shaved off his goatee — and grew it right back.

But the problems between the charismatic Lemmon and the conservative university, which started early and escalated for years, went far deeper than surface appearances. The more consequential trouble had to do with Lemmon's academic views, the radical nature of his chimpanzee research, and the highly irregular relationships he fostered among his students, his colleagues in the clinical psychology department, and even the patients in his private practice. Lemmon, inhabiting some parallel chimp universe, had much in common with Alfred Kinsey. He shared Kinsey's intensity, his originality, his love of controversy — and his interest in sexuality. By the 1970s, Lemmon was doing research on clitoral orgasms in female chimpanzees. Operating on the cutting edge, he exerted a magnetic effect on many of those in his sphere of influence, who saw him as a visionary, a leader. Lemmon, however, would never make a significant contribution to his field. His ideas were often too far out to be fundable — even if they were in fact doable.

Eccentric as he was, no one could deny Lemmon's popularity on campus, which irked other professors in the psychology department. Undergraduates lined up to get into his famous introductory courses, and graduate students clamored for acceptance into his program, known as the Psychological Clinic, to undergo Lemmon's intensive training program for therapists. Lemmon wanted only the brightest, most devoted acolytes, and in a grueling process of selection he handpicked each student for the program. Other professors competed for the same students and lost. For students, getting a green light from the master therapist was equivalent to a coveted membership in a club.

Lemmon turned the Psychological Clinic into his headquarters. The clinic operated out of a building on a separate area of campus known as South Base, which was a short distance from the main campus, and Lemmon ran it virtually as his own private enterprise. Home to his delightful macaw as well as other research animals he occasionally brought in for observation, it had an atmosphere the students found exotic and appealing. Lemmon's students functioned almost like a cult, supporting each other and worshipping their leader. They filled his workshops to capacity, used him as an advisor for every decision large and small, and longed for hands-on time with his endlessly fascinating, not to mention highly amusing, chimps, who began showing up in Norman in the early 1960s. An invitation to Lemmon's "home" — IPS — was a badge of honor.

Lemmon had a mystique, an aura, which attracted students looking for inspiration, guidance, or perhaps just a father figure. Students literally scrambled to get physically near him, and some even emulated his personal habits. If Lemmon smoked a certain brand of cigarette in class, his students switched to that brand. Once he conducted an experiment to see how far they would go to imitate him. Lemmon began smoking big stinky cigars — and observed that the smokers in his entourage did the same.

As a prerequisite for entrance into his clinical program, Lemmon's students had to undergo psychotherapy or some alternative therapy with a faculty member or with the master himself. Lemmon, of course, was the most revered and feared therapist of all. Students were often both therapist and patient, simultaneously in therapy with one of their professors while treating one of their peers. The interior of Lemmon's building on South Base looked more like a real clinic than an academic setting. There were small offices, each one with a couch, where Lemmon and his graduate students saw private, paying patients in between classes and training sessions, day and night. Other professors, along with associates, often moonlighted in the building to augment their modest academic salaries. Some of the professors who didn't moonlight charged those who did with unethical conduct in an academic building.

Lemmon never took his opposition, mostly experimental psychologists in the department, too seriously. But ignoring his critics did not make them go away. They scrutinized Lemmon's program ever more carefully in an effort to gather ammunition to destroy it and snatch his students. Lemmon's conservative colleagues wanted to see some rats and pigeons and some grants to support them, not to mention an end to the lucrative therapy sessions, which they viewed as a disgrace to the department. Lemmon had no intention of preaching the theories of B. F. Skinner, or what he called "rat science." He was a Freudian, which was unusual for a clinical psychologist. Even more unusual, he did Freudian-type research on his chimpanzees, hoping to explore their early development and how their personalities formed.

Lemmon was best known in Norman for his highly successful chimp breeding program and for his long-term cross-fostering experiments, which began in 1962 with the purchase of his first two chimpanzees, Pan (born in Ghana) and Wendy (born in Sierra Leone). The young chimps, a year old when they arrived, were raised in the Lemmons' home with their two human children, Peter and Sally, ages eleven and ten. (Three half siblings from their father's first marriage made periodic visits.) Peter Lemmon, who remembers Pan and Wendy fondly, describes them as "his first two hairy brothers and sisters." There would be many more.

Convinced that comparative studies between humans and chimpanzees would lead to new insights into the evolution of the human brain, something researchers still knew very little about, Lemmon wanted to find out everything he possibly could about chimpanzee behavior and early development. The key, he believed, was raising the chimps in human homes, where their "humanness" could be reinforced and made more distinct and observable. Lemmon planned to cultivate a colony of human-raised chimps that were kept isolated from members of their own species, and a parallel colony of chimps reared by their natural mothers and living in a large social group. When in a whimsical mood, he wondered, occasionally to the press, whether or not chimps could learn to talk, understand the value of a dollar, or drive cars. As of yet no one had proved otherwise. Chimp genetics, DNA forensics, the discovery of AIDS, the Endangered Species Act, and Project Nim were still years ahead.

Pan and Wendy were the beginning of all Lemmon's aspirations. For their first few years, the young chimps were attention magnets and about as big a novelty in Oklahoma as the first Model T. People had seen a few chimps in movies or on television but never up close and personal. Eager to show them off, Lemmon allowed those he trusted to hold them and interact with them, which was a rare treat. His chosen students lined up to help collect detailed data, sometimes hour by hour, on Pan and Wendy's development. They were magnificent ambassadors for their species, and simultaneously remarkably like human children, which made them infinitely endearing. Lemmon's associates had adopted all kinds of animals in his wake, mostly exotic birds and monkeys, and now they wanted their own chimps too. Lemmon, eager to collect more data for his research, set out to bring more chimps to Norman.

Excerpted from Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Hess. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.