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Once again, it's time for another installment in the Planet of the Apes franchise. This diary isn't about the movie. Instead, we will have a look at the 2011 U.K. documentary Project Nim: The Human Chimp. This is the story of Nim, a male chimpanzee born in 1973. Nim was the subject of an experiment to see if a chimp, raised like a human, could learn a form of language.

The documentary was first shown at 2011 Sundance, and released in theaters in July of that year, then on DVD in 2012. I bring it up now because here in Canada, it will air this weekend on CBC's The Passionate Eye. That's a series which features interesting documentaries from around the world. CBC's timing might be taking advantage of the movie timing, but that's fine.

What follows is like a bad soap opera.

WARNING: What you read below may be disturbing to some. It is a story that involves animal cruelty under the guise of science.

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Please join me below the orange croissant for more.

Going back to the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, the various species of apes were highly advanced, but the chimpanzees were the intellectuals. We don't know if the experimenters in Project Nim took any inspiration from the movie. What they attempted was to see if a chimp, raised as if human, could learn to communicate by sign language.

The documentary uses a combination of contemporary photographs, home movies, and new interviews with several of the human participants.

Nim was born in 1973 at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. Just days after birth, he was removed from his mother and placed directly into the arms of Stephanie, a graduate student of psychology. Stephanie accepted the role of Nim's "mother" without having discussed this with her husband or several children. She acknowledges, in an interview for the documentary, that she had not researched chimpanzees, and she really didn't know much about them at all.

I breast-fed him for a couple of months. It seemed completely natural.
It doesn't seem that natural to me, but what do I know. I've seen plenty of video of young animals being bottle-fed, but the very idea of a human breast-feeding an animal seems creepy to me.

Nim was to be raised as part of the family, dressed, eating, and fitting in with family life. Breast feeding included. The biggest part of the experiment was teaching Nim words from American Sign Language. Apparently, the researchers wanted to see if eventually this chimp would be able to express and share his feelings and thoughts.

But soon, we hear Stephanie's daughter Jenny recalling the primary researcher Herbert Terrace:

Something ... didn't sit right with me about him.
Stephanie then reveals that she had had a previous sexual relationship with Herb, and that was tangled up in the reasons for her accepting this assignment. There's a weird juxtaposition with this discussion, and a photograph of Herb, standing naked in the shower, holding the chimp like a human baby. There are undercurrents of the entire situation just being weird.

Nobody in the family knew any sign language, nor had any inkling of how babies learn to communicate. And yet, the assignment for Stephanie was to teach sign language to this chimp. Along the way, there was a measure of success. Nim eventually built up a vocabulary of some 120 words. But, says Stephanie:

We were molding him, we were molding these damn hands, and all this stuff. He was starting to mold us.
And then:
No-one ever put him in his place. He just grew more and more powerful.
The biting started. And the destruction of their home. Nim was openly defiant to Stephanie's husband; he and Nim seemed to dislike each other from the outset, and Nim would not accept his authority, particularly as an older dominant male.

Herb:

Stephanie being the kind of mother she was, was not very concerned about discipline. It was sort of a hippie mentality. And, I think what I would tell her would go in one ear and out the other.
When you hear about experiments of this type, what comes to mind is a rigorous definition of the goals and expectations, measurements, discipline, detailed journals, and so on. This sounds more and more like an experiment that was just made up, maybe for fun. Though Stephanie does say that "Herb would have wanted" more discipline in the study, she didn't comply, and it doesn't seem like Herb was able (or willing?) to put any structure in place. I'm starting to dislike Herb, Stephanie, and everything about this situation.

Next we are introduced to Laura, who answered an ad placed by Herb for a research assistant in a scientific study. Her initial job was essentially to be a babysitter for Nim, and to assist in the teaching of sign language. But then this from Stephanie, waving her hand dismissively:

She came from nowhere as a cute little thing ...
Yeah, that's a good start.

Laura says that she was alarmed upon first arriving at Stephanie's house, and witnessing utter chaos. Nim was turning the house upside down, and Stephanie was doing nothing to stop it. Not only that, but Stephanie herself goes on to say that they freely let Nim take puffs on joints, drink alcohol, and whatever else he wanted. This might be carrying the thing about treating the chimp as family to an extreme. More Stephanie:

When Nim began to discover my body, my nakedness, ... sure, I mean, like a child, one day he was uninterested, and then he was interested. I never felt sexually engaged with him. There was a sensuality, but dealing with, um, a pre-teen...
Apparently, things were crossing a line that even Herb couldn't tolerate, as he states now that it was not possible to do "good science" in the conditions at Stephanie's house. Soon, Laura became the "Director of Education", as Nim was removed from the house and into a sort of classroom setting at Columbia University. Here, Nim's learning of sign language accelerated. But rivalries between Stephanie and Laura (in the role of Nim's new "mother") increased. Stephanie and her family were cast out of the project.

Columbia happened to own Delafield Estate, a large mansion setting in Riverdale. In 1975, Herb moved Nim to the mansion, along with a succession of teachers, Laura among them. She narrates that she wanted to be part of Herb's world, and Herb likewise states that the two of them "really clicked".

I had strong personal feelings about Laura. But I don't think that in any way got in the way of our science.
Whatever.

Around this time, the project started to catch some media attention. We see snippets of interviews with Herb, Laura, Dr. David Suzuki, and others. And a cover story from New York Magazine: "First Message From the Planet of the Apes". An entirely positive message, of course, was being hyped.

But as Nim grew, he was getting more aggressive. Laura describes the bites she received, one on her arm requiring 37 stitches to close. If she stood up too quickly, or made other sudden moves, Nim would go into attack mode.

On the more gentle side, Joyce and Bill, two additional teacher/researchers, talk about Nim's love of body contact, including with a cat they had on the property. Nim was very gentle with touching and holding the cat. This eventually morphed into Nim attempting to hump the cat, before the human handlers took the cat away from him.

Meanwhile, Laura abruptly left the project after what she describes as a brief "involvement" with Herb. But as brief as it was, she says, they "appropriately" brought it to a halt. Forgive me for thinking that what would have been "appropriate", would be to avoid getting "involved" in the first place. It seems that Herb has a bit of a problem with mixing his personal life with his female researchers.

As Laura was getting the boxes of her stuff to leave, Nim attacked her, pushing her to the ground, and pounding her head up and down. It took four men to get him off her.

Biting increased. Nim would bite everyone and everything, without provocation. Another teacher, Renee, describes being bitten on the face for no apparent reason. "It was just ... bad", she says, in an understatement.

They couldn't sew it, because of the risk of infection. So I had an open gaping wound on my face for three months.
As if an open wound wouldn't be a source of infection? Herb's reaction, now, is that he was afraid this was going to be bad publicity if word got out that the experiment had become life-threatening.
Nobody keeps a chimp for more than five years, because at five years, they don't know their own strength, and can do a lot of damage to people.
No shit, Sherlock. I can't help but wonder: shouldn't Herb have known this little fact earlier, before the chimp started to do a lot of damage to people? Just sayin'.

Herb abruptly called all the people involved in the project together, and told them the project was over. Speaking now, he says that a lot of data had been collected, and now it was time to analyze it. The question was, could the chimp put together meaningful sentences? There was no answer at that point and time, and they would have to wait and see.

It's now 1977, and Nim is given a drug one morning to put him out, and he later wakes up back at the Institute in Oklahoma, where he was born. He was pretty much just dumped there by Herb, who now recalls:

It turned out to be a surprisingly more primitive facility than I remembered.
Others described it as a "dark, dank, prison". Up to this point in time, Nim had never interacted with other chimps. And the keepers of this Institution seemed to enjoy using electric cattle prods. But in film from the time, Herb expresses being very happy, because Nim had apparently befriended another chimp named Max, and he was going to be just fine.

Needless to say, Nim wasn't just fine. Suddenly removed from the humans he interacted with daily, from the human foods he had been eating, and all the behaviors that were part of his life, he found himself basically in prison. One of his new keepers describes how Nim would just curl up and lose interest in food, and everything going on around him.  

Eventually they coaxed Nim into a new routine. A year later, Herb arrived at the Institute for a visit, along with camera crews in a staged setup. Nim eagerly jumped into Herb's arms, and the media dutifully ate up how wonderful things had been for Nim. The narration implies that Nim must have been thinking that Herb was there to take him "home".

But then Herb was gone. The next morning, Nim seemed to be depressed, again showing no interest in food, from inside his cage. Herb would never come back.

In a 1979 interview, Herb publicly changed his position on his research, stating that Nim hadn't learned what they thought he was learning. In the interview for this documentary, he goes on to say that Nim was basically giving the responses that the researches wanted. He wasn't so much thinking and communicating, as mimicking. Most of his words were, in effect, "I want that", whatever "that" was from moment to moment. From 1979:

You can learn a list of words by rote, but that says nothing about your ability to use grammar.
Clearly, Nim did learn words over the span of five years. How much did he really understand? Also clearly, not as much as Herb would have had us believe especially in those early years.

The next player to enter Nim's life was James Mahoney, of LEMSIP: Laboratory Experimental Medicine Surgery in Primates. Nim's keepers at the Institute were alarmed when this fellow showed up. "He represented the Devil", said Bob, one of the keepers. James describes his lab's mission as testing various medicines and vaccines on the animals. In 1982, the Institute, facing financial troubles, sold Nim and several other chimps to LEMSIP.

This was not a luxury assignment. One shot from inside the LEMSIP facility at the time shows the chimp cages, raised a couple of feet off the floor, with large amounts of feces on the floor below. James:

There's no way, in all honesty, there's no way to carry out research on animals, and for it to be humane. It can't be humane.
Bob tried to get media attention on the situation. In an interview at the time, Herb was asked if there was anything he could do to save Nim.
Unfortunately, there's nothing I can do, because legally, Nim is not mine. Nim was loaned to me for the duration of my project. That project ran out of funds.
That sounds like a different version of the project's end than Herb had given previously.

Henry Hermann, a lawyer, got involved after reading a story about Nim's predicament in the Boston Globe. The threat of legal action, and the media circus that could result, got Nim rescued from LEMSIP. He ended up at the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, a shelter for abused animals. Even there, he was solitary, as he was the only chimp, and the humans didn't interact with him much. The Ranch owners threatened Bob with arrest if he attempted to visit.

Nim was miserable, according to one of the Ranch owners. He escaped from his cage several times, and always tried to get into the ranch house. One time he threw a chair through a window attempting to break into the house. A house, with people in it, was what Nim had been conditioned to believe was his natural habitat.

Eventually Stephanie, hearing of Nim's whereabouts, went to the Ranch to visit. Nim recognized her immediately, and she wanted to go into his cage. Against the advice of the Ranch owners, Stephanie did go into the cage. Nim attacked her. He could have easily killed her, but did not. She managed to escape, after being violently dragged and tossed around.

Ten years later, with the Ranch under new ownership, Bob visited Nim. But Bob stayed safely outside the cage; while they appeared to play together, there was no physical contact other than touching fingers through the cage. Conditions at the Ranch were noticeably better than under previous ownership.

In 1995, LEMSIP closed down. About sixty surviving chimps were "saved" to various places; two of them joined Nim at the Ranch. This arrangement lasted five years, until Nim's death in 2000 of a heart attack, at the age of 26.

Teh Google turns up varying numbers for the life expectancy of a chimpanzee, but 40 years or even longer seems to be typical.


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