Project Nim – Review

Posted on August 26, 2011


Nim Chimpsky, as seen in Project Nim

They did things differently in the 70’s. So much so that no one batted an eye-lid when a professor from Columbia University wrenched an infant chimpanzee from his mother, to give to his former lover to raise as a human child in New York City, as a language experiment. Meet Nim.

Prof Herbert Terrace and Nim

Nim Chimpsky was considered nothing more than a lab rat to Prof Herbert Terrace. A narcissus ‘villain’ who was intent on disproving the theory of Noam Chomsky (hence his name). Terrace was a behavioural psychologist and he was adamant, regardless of the cost to Nim’s well-being, to show that language is learnt and is not unique to humans. He wanted Nim to learn sign-language so that he would be able to communicate with him. But it wasn’t as straight forward as he had hoped and his project eventually failed.

Apes have the intelligence to learn to sign words, but they have not yet shown the ability to form complex sentences to prove they understand semantics in the same way a human child does. Their cognition is comparative to a three-year old child, but that’s where is ends.

Laura-Ann Petito with Nim, who taught him to sign

The film, directed by James Marsh was absolutely fantastic, but very sad, which I was not actually prepared for. Terrace who is more randy than a dog on Viagra, picks out his researchers based on their body/mass index – clearly more interested in getting into their knickers than their ability to care for Nim appropriately. Nim’s life is unlike any other chimp, he’s breast-fed, smokes dope, drinks beer, is potty trained, tries humping a family cat and then one day without warning he’s tranquillised and wakes up in a cage in an animal facility to live with his own kind. No prizes for guessing his reaction when he sees another chimp for the first time.

Nim, like most foster kids becomes a product of a broken home. He is rehoused again and again with different carers until he’s cruelly abandoned. Does anyone blame him for developing behavioural issues, raised as a human and left to die as an animal, I’d be confused, wouldn’t you? He only lived to 26, chimps in captivity can live up to the age of 50. Towards the end of his life, Bob Ingersoll, one of the last researchers to show love and affection towards Nim, tracks him down and does his best to make his life a better one in his latter days.

Bob Ingersoll with Nim

Marsh cleverly uses the personal stories of the carers and Terrace and interweaves them with original footage from the 70’s-80’s along with some wonderful stills. Hindsight is a beautiful thing and more than 30 years on, many of those involved in the project regret the way Nim was treated; but Terrace shows very little remorse. His arrogance sadly prevails.

Nim’s life, a bittersweet one, is brilliantly depicted in this a remarkable documentary. I just hope it’s enough to shock people into realising that Nim and other primates like him, need to be treated with more respect than they are often given.

Nim as an infant, living in a New York apartment