'Project Nim' Traces Chimp's Human Life
SCOTT SIMON: James Marsh described his Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire" as a heist film. His new documentary, "Project Nim," could be called a heist film too. It tells the story of a chimpanzee who was taken away from his mother, given to a human mom, taken away from her too, and ultimately stripped of everything and everyone he knew and trusted. Karen Michel reports that the humans are the villains of this movie.
KAREN MICHEL: In the early 1970s, Columbia University Professor Herb Terrace wanted to prove that chimps had language, not just individual words or signs, but that chimps could put them together to actually communicate, to have conversation.
HERB TERRACE: The most distinguishing characteristic of humans is that they have language. And, if in fact, Nim could learn to converse in language, so we can ask him questions and he could tell us how he felt, that would just be mind-blowing.
MICHEL: Terrace felt the experiment had the potential to change the behavioral sciences.
TERRACE: I thought I had the strongest proof of anyone that a chimpanzee can learn to produce a sentence - a grammatical sentence. Not quite as reliably as a child but certainly better than chance.
MICHEL: Terrace argued that to prove his hypothesis is chimp should be raised as a human, socialized and taught American Sign Language, a construct used by prior chimp language experiments. The infant primate was named Nim Chimpsky, a backhanded homage to linguist Noam Chomsky, who maintained that only humans have language. Terrace figured that by dressing Nim as a toddler, the chimp would identify with human youngsters and want to talk. Or in this case, sign.
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TERRACE: Stephanie was a former student of mine. She had a large family of her own children and her husband's children, was exceedingly empathic and warm and the chimp could not have a better mother.
MICHEL: Jenny Lee was 13 when her graduate student mother brought Nim home to an Upper West Side New York City townhouse.
JENNY LEE: He was kind of like the eighth child. Yeah. He was sort of a weird eighth child. You know, I mean in that it was he's not really a child. He's a science experiment. He's a chimp. He's a child. He is a, you know, it was confusing.
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LEE: It was definitely a little like there was no, there was no clear way to define it.
MICHEL: In the film, there are scenes of Jenny and her siblings playing with Nim.
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MICHEL: Of him in a high chair at the dinner table.
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MICHEL: But this may not have been the best environment for a scientific experiment. You know, the family was not 100 percent normal to begin with. You know, my father works in the theater. And then my mother divorced, remarried. There were seven kids. It was like the dysfunctional Brady Bunch. And, you know, everything was kind of wacky. So it was just kind of like, oh, a chimp. OK, you know. And you just sort of - great. Cool. You know, everyone was very excited. But it was not laissez-faire. It wasn't kind of like, oh, yes, a chimp, la de da. But it was exciting.
MICHEL: Eventually, to provide more structure, Professor Terrace had Nim spend part of his time in a windowless classroom at Columbia University. Then, the young chimp was removed from his human family and taken to a university owned mansion, where he lived with his teachers. At this point, Terrace let the media in on his experiment. Crews from "Sesame Street" followed Nim around. There were articles in popular magazines and appearances on TV.
BOB INGERSOLL: We've probably all seen performing chimpanzees on television or in circuses. But Nim is no ordinary chimp.
MICHEL: In the midst of this life and media circus, Nim ultimately learned 125 signs and invented some himself. But by then, Nim had become too big, too strong, too much of a chimp to handle. So Terrace abruptly ended the experiment and sent the chimp who'd never known another chimp back to the no-frills Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma where he was born.
INGERSOLL: Our cages were cages. They weren't just a room with a locked door. They were cages. And it looked like a prison.
MICHEL: Bob Ingersoll was a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma who worked at the institute. He saw that Nim was in trouble. The two became best friends. And, as friends do, they talked.
INGERSOLL: I did get to interact with Nim on that level. He did come up to me and call me by my name and ask me to go do stuff, simple things that made a difference. He did point out to me a tree that I didn't even know existed and bring me over to it and show me the berries. So, you know, that did happen for me. And Herb says, oh, it would've been, it would've been. But for me it was.
MICHEL: When The Institute of Primate Studies could no longer afford to keep Nim, he was sold to a medical research laboratory. Bob Ingersoll saved Nim's life by rescuing him and other chimps. But almost no one, no human comes out especially well in this movie, as director James Marsh acknowledges.
JAMES MARSH: I would say that (unintelligible) the chimpanzee won hands down. He's in this experiment for best part of I think, you know, five years. And when he leaves the experiment everyone is assuming, all the people around him, all the graduate students, that he can use language. And it's interesting that they almost can't see the wood for the trees.
Two years after the experiment ends, Professor Terrace concludes to the contrary to what he was saying when Nim was with him. So in other words, Nim probably was fooling them all.
MICHEL: Eventually, Professor Herb Terrace analyzed his data by looking at videotapes of Nim and his teachers signing and concluded that Nim was not learning language, learning to converse.
Terrace is not happy with the film.
TERRACE: I don't think the film showed the scientific purpose of the project and as such did a tremendous disservice. It didn't serve the purpose I hoped it would.
MICHEL: In his apartment in San Francisco, Bob Ingersoll has a hallway lined with paintings done by chimps, including Nim.
INGERSOLL: The one you're talking about from the film is right there. And you can see this part of it was the part that you actually see in the film. And then he added some of this. So he did like mixed media here.
MICHEL: Ingersoll likes what James Marsh did with the story of Project Nim.
INGERSOLL: It's not preachy. It doesn't feel like a doc. It feels like a story. It feels like a movie. He turns Nim into a movie star. And I love that. I mean, I love that. And I'm very grateful.
MICHEL: Nim lived out his days at a preserve for abused animals. He died there of a heart attack at the age of 20 - young for a chimp. Earlier in his brief life, Nim was presented with a bunch of photos, some of chimps, including himself, and some of humans. Asked to separate the pictures, he put his photo in with the humans.
For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.
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