Copyright ©2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

If a baby chimp was raised like a human baby, could it be taught sign language and then learn to use words in a sentence and communicate like a human child? That's the question Columbia University psychology professor Herb Terrace set out to answer when he launched his now famous and controversial experiment with a baby chimp named Nim in 1973.

That experiment and its surprising and disturbing consequences is the subject of the new documentary "Project Nim."

Nim was born at a primate research facility and taken away from his mother when he was two weeks old. Professor Terrace gave him to his former student, Stephanie LaFarge, and assigned her to raise him as if he were her own baby and teach him to sign.

Nim lived with LaFarge, her second husband and their combined family of seven children in a brownstone on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Over the course of five years, Nim had a couple of other surrogate mothers and several researchers working with him, was moved to an estate owned by the university and learned about 120 signs.

But as he grew, he became more aggressive and sexual, and the study was terminated. Nim was sent back to the primate research facility, then to a center that used chimps for medical experiments and finally to an animal refuge.

Later, we'll hear from Stephanie LaFarge's daughter Jenny Lee, who was 13 when Nim moved in with her family; and Bob Ingersoll, who became Nim's friend and advocate when the experiment ended.

Our first guest is the director of the documentary "Project Nim," James Marsh. He also directed "Man on Wire." "Project Nim" combines film documenting the original experiment, along with new interviews. In this clip, Stephanie LaFarge describes the extremes she went to to raise Nim like her own baby and the impact it had on her marriage to her husband Weir(ph). The second voice you'll hear is LaFarge's daughter Jenny.

(Soundbite of film, "Project Nim")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. STEPHANIE LAFARGE: I breastfed him for a couple of months. It seemed completely natural. Everything was about treating him like a human being. By the time I had Nim, of course I felt very comfortable with babies. I wasn't prepared at all for the wild animal in him and the drive.

By the time he was three months old, I think, and starting to be ambulatory, he was just right there, nothing passive, nothing passive ever.

Ms. JENNY LEE: You know, I think he figured that he could just get in between Weir and Stephanie on some level. And Weir put his arm around her, and Nim just, you know, half-asleep having a bottle, you know, turned and bit Weir on the arm quite hard. He didn't want Weir in the picture. He wanted Stephanie all to himself.

Ms. LAFARGE: Weir definitely felt excluded. Nim had just become part of my being. That was incompatible with the role that I played as wife.

GROSS: That's an excerpt of "Project Nim." My guest is director James Marsh. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

There's so many fascinating things about the movie. You have the scientific part: Can a chimp learn sign language? But you also have a part that's alluded to in the clip that we heard in terms of trying to raise a chimp as a human.

But as the chimp grows, he gets more aggressive. The animal in him emerges more fully, and no one seems prepared for that because they know nothing about chimps. The family that's raising him has no experience with chimps or sign language.

Mr. JAMES MARSH (Director, "Project Nim"): The premise of the experiment was to give him the nurturing of a human child in order that he might then behave like one. And it was quite striking that there wasn't a great deal of investigation as to what chimpanzees actually were or what they're like, essentially.

And there's a pattern to chimpanzees' behavior that's really quite well-established and quite well-known. And the wild animal in him comes out very quickly, and Stephanie wasn't prepared for that, that within three months, he was basically climbing the walls.

And very quickly, he begins to try and establish dominance over the males in the household, which again is a hard-wired kind of behavior.

GROSS: Because things are so kind of chaotic and out of control in the first household in Manhattan where Nim is raised, and they're giving him alcohol and marijuana, they're not keeping scientific logs of the progress that they've making with the sign language, the professor who's running the experiment moves Nim to a move laboratory setting and then moves him again to a big estate in the country that's owned by Columbia University so that Nim can have more room to run around in and be a chimp in.

So people who are more scientific in their approach start to take over and teach him sign language, but Nim keeps getting more aggressive.

Mr. MARSH: I think the paradox is that, you know, we're asking in this case a series of women to be mothers to him and also to be scientists, and that's quite a contradictory thing to be, in a way. You know, you're asking Stephanie and then Laura-Ann Petitto to nurture him like a child, which involves quite complicated emotional interactions between you and the chimpanzee.

And then also you're asking them to be detached and to, you know, observe him as a scientific project. And that's almost destined to be tense and in conflict. And as you say, his wild behavior becomes more and more - as he gets bigger of course really quite dangerous to some of the people. And this causes, you know, a whole set of new problems for the people involved in the experiment.

And it's extraordinary, too, that he goes - he has the most privileged upbringing imaginable. He's on the Upper West Side, in a beautiful brownstone. Then he goes to this amazing mansion with beautiful gardens and grounds around it and has all this - you can't imagine this happening now.

So he has a, you know, very privileged upbringing on one level, but in a sense, he's shunted from parent to parent. He has a very dysfunctional upbringing both for a child and indeed for a chimpanzee.

GROSS: Give us a brief idea of what this experiment was designed to prove.

Mr. MARSH: Well, the simple premise of it is: Can a chimpanzee construct a sentence? And that sounds like a very simple idea. But what it means is can a chimpanzee be endlessly creative and inventive with a language that we give them, i.e., human language.

And if so, then can we find out what the chimpanzee is feeling and how he sees the world, which is a mindboggling idea. It's like speaking to an alien from outer space. You know, we'd get a completely new and fresh view of the world through a chimpanzee.

So it has - it's a fantastically ambitious project in that respect. Of course, the way it plays out isn't quite up to those wilder ambitions.

GROSS: One of the problems that Nim posed for the men and women who were taking care of him, falling in love with him and doing the scientific study about whether a chimp can be taught to communicate with language was that Nim became very sexual, as chimps do, and did a lot of really inappropriate things.

I mean, like Nim really loved cats, but he put a cat on his lap and used it to sexually arouse himself, I mean, just to like rub himself.

Mr. MARSH: Well, it was probably a bit more than that, to be honest with you?

GROSS: Really?

Mr. MARSH: Indeed. But of course, you know, that then speaks of, you know, his wild animal behavior. And he has no inhibitions. And one of the things we try and do is inhibit him in certain ways, inhibit his aggression, in this case inhibit these perfectly natural sexual urges he has as an adolescent, which in the film play out quite comically.

You see him, you know, with a cat. You see him with a rock. You see him actually with some of the females involved, the women involved in the experiment, you know, trying it on with them. But in a sense, you know, that speaks of his deeper confusion.

He doesn't have any contact with - he doesn't know what chimpanzees are. He's not had any contact with chimpanzees, the moment he was born. And therefore, where do these urges go? And they go to, you know, to these what we would say kind of inappropriate kind of objects and creatures and people.

And he has no outlet, no proper outlet for them. So it's both funny and also a little bit, you know, revealing and sad. Essentially, it's his circumstances that are strange, not his behavior, which is worth pointing out. It's actually - he's not in the wild, and he's not even amongst other chimpanzees. These are very unusual and strange circumstances for him.

So we may find his behavior in them odd, but in fact it's perfectly natural to him to behave that way, given the strangeness of where he actually is.

GROSS: Yeah, we were talking about how aggressive Nim could be because it's his instinct to be dominant and to express himself that way. And this posed a real problem for the researchers who loved him and were trying to be a surrogate family for him.

One of the women working with him was bit really badly. I mean, they'd all been bit, I think, you know, on the arm or leg or something. But this was a terrible incident. So we were going to play a clip from the film, "Project Nim," in which Renee Falitz, who was helping to teach him sign language, was basically attacked by Nim while she was getting Nim from one of the other researchers in what's called a body transfer.

First, we'll hear from Renee Falitz, who was attacked by Nim, from a fellow researcher on Project Nim, Bill Tynan, and then we'll hear from Professor Herb Terrace, the linguist who was running the experiment.

(Soundbite of film, "Project Nim")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RENEE FALITZ: It is the end of July. It was July 28, and Bill had him, and we did to the body-to-body transfer.

Mr. HERB TERRACE: I mean, you're holding, you're holding Nim, and the other person comes up, and you just kind of hand the chimp to the other person.

Ms. FALITZ: And I said come on, and I got the tether. You know, you've got the loop first, and I then tied it to my belt. Come here. And he came over. And he put his arms around me. Ah. He just crushed my face.

Mr. TERRACE: It just happened.

Ms. FALITZ: And I grabbed Nim and just dragged him into the house, and he was like oh, sorry, sorry, sorry. Now no, no, no. And I passed that armoire with that mirror and saw all this blood. He had bit through my cheek almost to the inside of my mouth. It was folded over so you could see inside my face.

Mr. TERRACE: I don't recall if she went to the emergency room, but I think that something like that happened.

Ms. FALITZ: It was just - it was just bad.

Mr. TERRACE: I was probably worried that she would sue me over this. It would become a public - this would become public knowledge about how life-threatening the project might be.

Ms. FALITZ: They couldn't sew it because of the infection and the risk of infection. So I had an open, gaping wound on my face for three months. And when I got out of the hospital, I said, you know, I want to see Nim. He went ooh. And he went to reach for my face again. I'm like whoa, that's it. I don't need closure now. I'm out of here. I was scared.

GROSS: So that's an excerpt of "Project Nim," directed by my guest James Marsh. You know, it's interesting in the scene that we just heard that the woman who was attacked, she leaves after that. I mean, she's done.

But the professor who started the experiment, his reaction is am I going to be sued, what does this mean for the experiment? Maybe it's the way you edited it, I don't know, but he seems less concerned about her face and the damage and, yeah, and the damage that his experiment is causing. Did he end the experiment after this incident?

Mr. MARSH: Quite soon after, he did. And again, I didn't edit that to create that impression. That's exactly what he - he could barely recall what actually had happened to Renee, but he could recall the - you know, the complications it might create for him as a scientist.

Now, he is a scientist after all, and he's about, you know, rationality and data and objectivity. So perhaps, you know, one could excuse the lack of compassion, if you like, on that, you know, scientific kind of mentality.

But I was quite struck by his inability to understand that someone had been very badly hurt. A young woman had her face, you know, ripped off, essentially. And so I was quite surprised at that and wanted to convey that in the film as a sort of revealing part of his character, perhaps.

GROSS: Her face looks fine in the movie. Are - is she disfigured, or are you just not showing that part of her face, or did she heal that well?

Mr. MARSH: She healed well, and she was young, and that was very helpful. You know, for a year, she was going in and out of hospital, having, you know, reconstruction on her face. And generally, it was, you know, a pretty sad thing to happen to a young woman in her early 20s.

GROSS: The point of the scientific study of Nim was to see whether he could acquire language. But your film, I think, is much more about what nature is, what a chimp's nature is, what human nature is. And I found myself really thinking throughout this film, well, if Nim is constantly expressing his innate chimp nature, in spite of the fact that he's being raised as a human in a Manhattan brownstone and in a beautiful estate in the New York countryside, then what does it say about human nature? What's innate in us?

Mr. MARSH: Well, that was for me one of the - again, one of the appeals of the story was that you felt like you were dealing with primate behavior across two species of primate, you know, ourselves and the chimpanzee.

And, you know, chimpanzees have a very rigorous sort of structure in their hierarchy, and they have a dominance culture, as we talked about. And it seems that we have some of those, too.

What you have in the experiment is a very powerful alpha-male-type human being and women who are kind of doing his bidding.

GROSS: The alpha male being the professor overseeing the experiment, who I might add here, it seems from your film, if I'm getting this right, that he had sexual relationships at one point or another with two of the women who were the researchers and surrogate mothers.

Mr. MARSH: Indeed. That seems to be established by the film. And that also is part of the behavior that's going on, if you like, around Nim's chimpanzee behavior. And you're seeing all kinds of, you know, versions of our human behavior flushed out by our, you know, attempt to nurture Nim.

And so you're seeing, you know, some of our sexual practices and sexual behavior. You're seeing human power structures. You're also seeing ideas about ownership and all that kind of other interesting, you know, human selfishness, as well.

And I think also some very good qualities of people that Nim has some steadfast allies and friends in the human world who indeed, you know, make sacrifices to try and make his life better. So it's not all a sort of misanthropic portrait of human beings. It's actually, you know, the great variety of our behavior is sort of all available in that story, and it felt to me that as I was making the film, it became a study as much of the humans as it was of the chimpanzee.

And if I can know more about the humans because, you know, I'm obviously very wary of trying to project human emotions onto the chimpanzee. That felt like part of the problem of Project Nim, and indeed Nim's life was played out a certain way because we projected things onto him, and I was determined not to do that in the film.

And therefore, I guess I guess I can be more sure, perhaps, about some of the human behaviors than I can about the chimpanzee behaviors.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your film.

Mr. MARSH: It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: James Marsh directed the new documentary "Project Nim." We'll hear from Jenny Lee, the daughter of Nim's first surrogate mother, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, Jenny Lee, was 13 years old when the two-week-old chimp Nim moved into her home. Jenny's mother, Stephanie LaFarge, was assigned to raise Nim like a human baby and teach him sign language as part of an experiment to see if a chimp raised like a baby could learn to communicate through words and sentences.

Jenny is one of the people featured in the new documentary "Project Nim," about the experiment and its consequences. Jenny Lee says although Nim was raised like a human child, he didn't behave like one.

Ms. LEE: We was one, and he would, you know, pound on his chest, and his hair would stand up. And we would laugh and think it was the funniest thing in the world when in the wild, if a baby male chimp did something like that, the mother would just, you know, swat him down, just say no, no, no, no, you're not the alpha male yet. You've got to, you know, follow your place. You've got to get with the program and understand you've got to work your way up the ranks here.

GROSS: So nobody put Nim in his place. Nim started to think that he was the king of the household.

Ms. LEE: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: What was some of the other behavior that Nim did around the house that was really kind of inappropriate for a Manhattan brownstone? I mean, like you guys had no experience with chimps. I mean, here your mother's like doing this experiment, but she and the rest of the family has no experience with chimps or chimp behavior, you know, and how to handle a chimp, what to expect as the chimp gets older.

Ms. LEE: It was - I think it was really the biting that became the big problem, you know, after he was maybe a year, a year and a half old because it's painful, and it can draw blood, and it can - and it's not something - you know, with a human baby, some babies go through, toddlers go through phases where they bite each other, and you can teach them not to do that. And that was not something that Nim was able to learn to really control.

He did learn a sign for angry, which was like a sign for bite, and there were times when he would sign that sign before he came charging at you and bit you because he was mad because you took something away.

And there were times that he signed that and then wouldn't bite you. So he was starting to use those signs to - from what I could see, to control his own behavior.

GROSS: Did you get bit?

Ms. LEE: Yeah, yeah, we all got bit. And I never got bit bad enough to require stitches or anything, but you'd get some really good black and blue marks.

GROSS: So would you be afraid of Nim after he bit you? Would it change your relationship with him?

Ms. LEE: No, because the biting wasn't without some sort of understandable cause. It wasn't a random act. It was - I would get bit because he had gotten into somebody's purse and - and, you know, he understood that wallets were precious. You know, he understood that money was - you know, that we wanted these, that we coveted these things.

So he would go and, you know, sneak off and grab, you know, somebody's wallet out of their bag and start to run around with it, and you'd get it back from him, and then you'd be fighting. You know, and he would - you'd get a good bite in the middle of it.

Now, if you started to cry and get upset with him, he responded instantly to be saying oh, I'm sorry. And he'd come, and he'd hug you, and he'd sit on your lap. So there was an awareness that he had done something bad or that that person was somehow in distress and in pain and needed comforting.

Whether he was making that actual connection, he probably wasn't old enough yet to really put together that, you know, he caused his, you know, his bite caused the pain that made me cry. But something had happened, and he knew that, and he would respond in a very empathetic way.

GROSS: We'll hear more from Jenny Lee in the second half of the show. She's featured in the new documentary "Project Nim." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross.

We're talking about the life of a chimp named Nim who was the subject of the new documentary "Project Nim." When Nim was two weeks old, he was chosen to be in an experiment to raise a chimp like a human baby and see if he could be taught sign language and learn to communicate in sentences like a child.

Let's get back to our interview with Jenny Lee. She was 13 when her mother was asked by the professor leading the experiment become Nim's surrogate mother. Nim moved into their home on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

One of the things in the movie that struck me as most odd, was that your mother, in her attempt to do what she was supposed to be doing, which was raising Nim as a human child, breast-fed Nim as she would a human child, and I just had no idea what to make of that. Have you spoken to her about that?

Ms. LEE: We haven't spoken really directly about it. When I think about it though, it was probably - it's something I was I'm sure aware of and but didnt, again, didn't seem out of the norm. It's, you know, it's one thing you have this, you're holding an infant in your arms and they have this instinct to root around, to be looking for a breast to nurse from, that's what he had been doing with his natural mother. And there are cases of primates, you know, guerrillas I believe and probably chimpanzees that, you know, have been lost a mother or who had the orphans for some reason and then are nursed by human surrogates.

You know, breast milk is breast milk, and it's nourishing and it's good and there's at some point it's - youre raising this creature as a human so you treat it as a human. People hear that and they think oh, it's so weird, it's so creepy and it just didn't feel weird and creepy then.

GROSS: Does it seem weird to you now?

Ms. LEE: It seems weird in the context of like the society today. But this, you know, 40 years ago...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEE: ...things were a little different. Things were probably a little freer than they are now. You know, if the situation occurred and, you know, handed me an infant chimp or a guerrilla or a primate, they are so close to us. You look in the eyes of a primate like that and you just - you fall in love. There's a feeling in a sense that you can communicate. There's a connection way beyond a connection that you would have with any other kind of non-human. We're so close that it blurs the line.

GROSS: Nim went with another researcher and lived at a mansion in New York. Then after the experiment was ended, was taken to a primate research facility where he lived in a cage. Then he was sold to a medical research facility where medical experiments are performed on chimps. Then he was sent to an animal refuge that was really designed for horses and not for chimps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I mean, there's a long complicated history with Nim. But at some point years after you'd seen him you and your mother went to visit Nim. Was he at that point?

Ms. LEE: He was at the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas.

GROSS: So this was the refuge for horses and other cloven animals.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. Right.

GROSS: And Nim was the only chimp there. And so youre visiting Nim who's in a cage and your mother decides to go into the cage to communicate more directly with Nim. And you tell the story in the movie. Would you tell us what happened? It's really such a frightening story.

Ms. LEE: We arrive at the ranch. I was excited to see him, worried what his reaction would be. Would he remember us, would he not remember us? So we walk up to the enclosure and he's there and he gets very excited. He's - there is recognition, clearly, but it's also there's a sense of agitation. And somewhere along the line my mom says I'm going to go in the enclosure with him and she decides to do that and, she - against advice of the people there - and she goes in. And he's full-grown, male chimp and he just, he grabbed her by the ankle and started running back and forth in his enclosure just swinging her, just sliding along the floor, you know, swinging back and forth like a rag doll. And the people, the ranch manager was panicking and somebody's running to get a gun. They were afraid for my mother's life. Don't know what's going to happen. And Nim is finally distracted enough, or lets go of her, and she's still okay. He then is lured outside to a different part of the enclosure and they're able to close a door in between them, separating them. And then my mother is able to come out of the enclosure.

GROSS: What went through your...

Ms. LEE: But it was noisy and chaotic. What was going through my mind was that, you know, one of them was going die.

GROSS: Either he was going to kill her or that...

Ms. LEE: He was going to kill her or they were going to kill him.

GROSS: They, being the people who ran the facility who went to get a gun.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. If it had come to that, I'm glad it didn't come to that, but it would have been a very difficult experience to get over.

GROSS: Seeing Nim shot.

Ms. LEE: Seeing Nim shot because he was - it's like he was just being himself.

GROSS: So you think it's your mother who behaved inappropriately by going in.

Ms. LEE: I think, yeah, yeah definitely. I mean she put her life at risk and she also put his life at risk by doing that.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. LEE: You know, it's whatever recognition he has or had of her, of us. You know, a lot happened between him going back to Oklahoma and him getting to the Black Beauty Ranch. It - the trauma that he must've gone through. I find it hard to watch the film for that reason, to sort of relive what was actually going on. So whatever rage or human emotion was built up inside, you know, he didn't kill her. He didn't go that far and he didn't - she survived. He could have easily killed her.

GROSS: You know, I was trying to put myself in your mother shoes and trying to understand why she did what she did and...

Ms. LEE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and here's the closest I could come, is that she suckled him at her breast. She was told to raise him like her baby and she did.

Ms. LEE: Yeah.

GROSS: And she loved him and you loved him.

Ms. LEE: Yeah.

GROSS: And then he was taken away from the family. And here's like years later she and you go to see him and she wants - I assume she wanted to have some of that relationship back and to say it's me, I love you.

Ms. LEE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And what, you know, like I know things have been horrible but it's me. I love you. And what happens is he's kind of, you know, swinging her around by the ankle.

Ms. LEE: Right.

GROSS: So you're saying that she behaved inappropriately and didn't understand, like this is an adult male chimp. You cannot do that. But after you witnessed what he did with your mother and how close he came to seriously hurting her or perhaps even killing her, did it change your love for Nim?

Ms. LEE: No. No, not at all. And I completely agree with, you know, what youre take on my mom's state of mind was. That makes, you know, 100 percent sense to me. That of course, she would want to do that. But it didn't change my feelings for Nim.

GROSS: So now you're a landscape architect and...

Ms. LEE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and for 15 years you worked with the Bronx Zoo. And one of your projects was helping design the Congo Gorilla Forest, an environment for gorillas in the zoo. Did living with Nim for a couple of years influence your decision to work with a zoo? Is that one of the impacts he had on you?

Ms. LEE: Indirectly Nim working with Nim very much I think influenced that decision. Directly? No. Directly I didn't go to the zoo because I had lived with a chimp and I wanted to design better chimp habitats. In fact, many people at the zoo never knew about or never - you know, now they know - but never knew I lived with a chimp. Some people knew about him. Some people didn't. It wasn't something I talked about a lot at the zoo. So there was no direct path for that. There was, I think, an emotional path of being able to then make some closure and say okay, I can do I can't pay this back, pay back the shame I feel about being involved in a project that had such a terrible outcome for Nim. But I can make I can work on this and make things better for these other animals.

GROSS: So you feel really bad.

Ms. LEE: Yeah.

GROSS: You feel some guilt about having been a part of the project that you think compromised Nim's life.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. Yeah, I do. And I think that's a lot of the reason why I have spent many years not talking about it, not telling people that I had a chimp as a brother.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LEE: And because of the rest of the story then becomes so hard to tell. Yeah. Oh, yeah, I had a chimp. Oh, yeah, then he was taken away. Yeah, oh, yeah, he was sold for medical research. Oh, he was rescued. Oh, yeah, he lived in Texas, you know, in a place and, you know, Black Beauty did a wonderful job with - they had him. They brought in another chimp.

GROSS: An animal sanctuary for horses, yeah.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. They brought in another chimp. They brought in, you know, she lived, Nim survived her. She died. They brought in other chimps for him to, knowing that chimps are social creatures. The, you know, the enclosure there was small and simple and not like living in a, you know, a Bronx Zoo type situation. He wasn't free to roam around on the grass and climb trees. And I feel a lot of guilt. I feel a lot of shame at - and I feel a lot of anger towards the people that were in charge of making those decisions.

GROSS: And you still feel a lot of love for Nim.

Ms. LEE: And I still feel a lot of love for Nim.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. LEE: Oh, youre welcome.

GROSS: Jenny Lee is one of the people featured in the new documentary "Project Nim."

We'll hear from Bob Ingersoll, who became Nim's friend and advocate after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Weve been talking about the now famous chimp Nim, who in 1973 became the subject of an experiment. The goal was to raise a baby chimp like a human baby, teach it sign language and see if it could acquire language skills like a child. After the project was terminated, Nim was taken from his posh human home to a cage in a primate facility. There he met a researcher and college student named Bob Ingersoll. He befriended Nim and became his long-term advocate. Ingersoll was one of the people interviewed in the new documentary "Project Nim."

So you became very close to Nim. Youve even described Nim as the creature that was your best friend. In what sense did he feel like a friend to you?

Mr. BOB INGERSOLL (Researcher): Well he, like any friend, he seemed accessible. His person, let's say, his chimp was very accessible to me and it was easy to hangout with him and just be a, you know, I imagine it to be more like an 11 or 12 year-old-kid, you know, hanging out with their best friend and hanging out under a tree on a summer day, and just looking at the clouds and feeling very comfortable, and certain and familiar about that other person. And that's kind of how I felt with Nim.

GROSS: Now we heard earlier on our show about incidents where Nim bit or attacked researchers who were working with him, women who had become his surrogate mothers.

Mr. INGERSOLL: Right.

GROSS: He nearly tore off the face of one of them. Did he expose his violent side to you?

Mr. INGERSOLL: No, never actually. I never once was ever - not just not attacked - he was never aggressive or violent or angry towards me on any level ever. However, I have to say that I know chimps fairly well and I can read them probably three or four steps in advance of most people that work or have been around chimps. So I have to say I have a little bit of an advantage over the people in New York who had no training, didnt know chimps. I mean, admittedly, they even say they didn't know chimps.

So no, I didn't see that violent side at all. And as Roger Fouts and many people who work with chimps say, there are very few people who can actually do it. One in 10, let's say. And they're a lot of people out there that I mean just can't do it. And for whatever the reason, chimpanzees, you know, feel like they can bite that person simply because they kind of deserve it, let's say. I mean, not that they deserve it but they're doing something that is totally inappropriate in the context of chimpness and that's what a chimp would do. They would bite you if you did something inappropriately.

GROSS: You said you could read the chimp and see like three steps ahead what he was going to do.

Mr. INGERSOLL: Right. Right.

GROSS: So if you felt that Nim was getting anger or was about to have a tantrum or something, would you make a move?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Yeah. Generally it's not very difficult. It's actually what we call changing the subject. And so I might just divert my attention to something else, real quickly. Like for example I would make a wah(ph) bark and go and wah, like that, and turn my head and look up towards a tree or something which then makes the chimp think oh, geez, there's something that we both need to be worried about so now we're buddies again. You know, and the context under - you know, the violent context or the aggression whatever is supplanted by the need to be buddies now, because, you know, there might be something near us that is a danger to both of us and, you know, we're really, when it comes right down to it, we're still friends. You understand what I'm saying?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now you never took food with you when you went on your walks with Nim. Why not?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Well, I just didn't want it to interrupt the whole situation. I don't know. A lot of people that end up work with chimps understand that chimpanzees are focused on food and very difficult to break their attention away from it. I never took food, but there was food available out on our walks. There was an orchard with apples and plum and pear trees and there were mulberries.

GROSS: And hanging around with Nim and taking walks with him, one of the things you did was smoke marijuana with him, which I think he'd already smoked...

Mr. INGERSOLL: Yeah, occasionally.

GROSS: ...when he was in New York.

Mr. INGERSOLL: Yeah.

GROSS: But I'm wondering what were Nim's highs like?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Well, not much different than yours or mine or anyone else that smokes pot. And, you know, it really wasn't that often. He actually signed it to us first, which...

GROSS: What, that he wanted marijuana?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Yeah. He signed: stone smoke time, which - we were shocked. You know, although we were familiar with chimpanzees that, you know, did things like drinking and, you know, smoke cigarettes and that sort of thing, I'd never actually had a chimpanzee request weed from me, let's say. So that was an eye-opener. Plus we were real...

GROSS: But he requested this before you had introduced it to him. He requested - he actually knew it from New York?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. He was in the magazine High Times in 1995.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. INGERSOLL: I mean 1975, so we were familiar with all this behavior. You know, not that we did or didn't approve. You know, he was kind of young actually to be smoking weed, two and half years old so, you know, we did question that. But we weren't questioning the fact that chimps would like to smoke weed or cigarettes or drink liquor or wine or beer or whatever. And, you know, you have to realize we were, you know, college students in the middle 70s and I was about 24 years old at the time. So... So indeed, we'd, you know, occasionally we smoked joints out on those eight hour-long walks and what better way to dis-include Nim than to not let him smoke weed with us. So if we smoked weed and he wanted to, I mean we didn't force him to do any of that.

GROSS: Did he have his own joint or did he share it with you and pass it around?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. INGERSOLL: Oh, no, no he always shared it with us, actually.

GROSS: He did share it with you?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Oh yeah, most definitely. Just, you know, just like you would, you know, if youre playing hacky sack or whatever. You know, hey, it's time to smoke a joint. Sit down and, you know, whoever has it lights it and passes it around in a circle and, you know? Yeah, he was exactly as if he were one of the human participants. No different at all. But it doesn't take very long when you're out with a big chimp to get the sense that he gets everything that you get, you know, mentally and otherwise. He perceives everything, and even some stuff he sees before you do, you know, some of the let's say the dangers like a snake for example or those kinds of things out on the walk. They're really hypersensitive to what's going on in the environment, so.

GROSS: Would he warn you if he saw snake?

Mr. INGERSOLL: No, actually he would warn me by like, you know, wrapping his...

GROSS: Freaking out?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. INGERSOLL: No not freaking out necessarily but wrapping himself around my leg and, you know, looking like totally freaked out. A couple of times he found a turtle which, you know, it's not a snake but he was deathly afraid of turtles. And, but, you know, he was a blast to be around and to be with, just like someone who is fun to be with.

GROSS: My guest is Bob Ingersoll, one of the people featured in the new documentary "Project Nim."

He'll talk more about Nim after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Bob Ingersoll about his relationship with Nim, the now famous chimp who was at the center of a language experiment that began in 1973. Ingersoll met Nim after the project was terminated and Nim was sent to the primate facility where Ingersoll worked. When the facility was low on funds, it sold many chimps, including Nim to a lab that conducted medical experiments on chimps.

GROSS: So what was your reaction when you're really best buddy Nim was sold to a medical research facility, knowing that he might be used for experimental inoculations, experimental surgery?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Some of my friends said I went pretty much out of my mind. I couldn't believe that my own university would just sell the chimps down the river and - to a medical research lab and for money. I was, you know, I couldnt imagine it. And it wasnt just Nim it or not just Nim that I was close to. There were a number of chimpanzees there that I'd work with even before Nim came. Kelly and Onan, Nim's brother, and Allie and quite a few. There was a chimpanzee named Mona who I saw very recently, and another named Bowie and Bruno and so, yeah, it was terrible. I have a list of those chimps' names that I carried around in my pocket for over 25 years. So...

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. INGERSOLL: So I was pretty distressed.

GROSS: DO you know if any medical research was actually done on Nim?

Mr. INGERSOLL: No there wasnt. He - fortunately for Nim, and unfortunately for the rest of the OU chimps that remained there, Nim got out after about two weeks because of the public outcry. And I've got to say, even Herb Terrace raised his voice pretty loud and clear that he thought it was wrong that Nim was there. Unfortunately, the other chimps stayed, and only because of Henry Herrmann, the lawyer, he got a bonus prize of getting Nim's brother out, you know.

GROSS: So the first time you visited Nim at the sanctuary at Black Beauty Ranch, how long had it been since you'd seen him?

Mr. INGERSOLL: About 12 years.

GROSS: Did he remember you?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Absolutely. As soon as he recognizes me he looks at me and signs the sign play. And it's fairly obvious to everyone that Nim not only recognized me, but he wanted to be right back where we were 12 years before. So, it was...

GROSS: Was that possible? I mean, you know, he had been confined to this cage for so many years and did you feel like you could go in the cage with him or take him out with you?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Yeah. You know, there's no question I could have taken him out of the cage or gone into the cage with him, which, you know, I had done many, many years before that. I visited Black Beauty Ranch once and - before in 1983 when he first moved down there but was then told not to come back. And like I said, that 12 years later, you know, I felt fairly confident that I could have done that. But that - not only would that have been not very smart because I wouldn't have been able to do that all the time but it wouldn't have been fair to Nim because, you know, no one else could do that. And what he really needed at that point were other chimps.

Chimps don't need to be with humans. They need to be with other chimps. They need to have a chimp life. And so my own personal need to hang out and be in the cage with Nim or out on a walk with Nim wasn't as important to me as doing the right thing for Nim, which was to get other chimps there and that really was, you know, my whole intention was to be able to get other chimps to be with Nim so that he'd have a little group and he'd have a little family, let's say, or a little group of chimpanzees that he got to hang out with so.

GROSS: So when you look at the actual research experiment that Nim was used for, the language research experiment to see whether a chimp could be taught to use sign language in a way that had, you know, grammar in a way where science could be put together in a sentence; what do you think of that study? Do you think it was a worthwhile study? Do you think it was a successful or unsuccessful study?

Mr. INGERSOLL: Well, in hindsight I look at that study with a variety of, you know, feelings. I know chimps, now, so I know what they have to go through in order to be in a study like that and I would disapprove. I also think that chimpanzees know a lot more than we're giving them credit for. And fortunately, there are researchers now in the wild that are able to kind of interface with that cognitive behavior of chimpanzees in the wild without having to have them in captivity. So I just can't condone any kind of research that includes keeping a chimpanzee captive. I just can't get past that anymore.

GROSS: Bob Ingersoll, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and good luck with your work.

Mr. INGERSOLL: Thank you, Terry. I appreciate being on the show.

GROSS: Bob Ingersoll is one of the people featured in the new documentary "Project Nim." You can see clips from the film on our Website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.