Nim the Chimp

Amazon link for dvd

Project Nim is a film by James Marsh about Nim Chimpsky, the chimp who was raised from infancy as a human in order to explore the learning of language in non-human primates. The film is based on the book by Elizabeth Hess, Nim Chimpsky: The chimp who would be human. CBC Radio’s Q interviewed Marsh about his film and Nim.

In an experiment started in 1973 by Columbia University psychologist Dr. Herbert S. Terrace, Nim grew up like a human child and learned American Sign Language. As he matured, he became a real male chimp with all the aggression and wildness that goes along with that. But he also liked going to the ice cream parlour for peach ice cream and sleeping in his bed.

Nim Chimpsky, at home, drawing on chalkboardAfter four years the experiment came to an end. Nim was taken from his home to an animal research facility. When it closed, he and the other chimps were sold to another lab. In the labs, he lived in a cage.


Once Nim escaped from the lab. He broke into a house where he climbed in a bed and went to sleep. Just like Goldilocks. Poor Nim. Listening to that in the interview broke my heart.

Nim grew up in human surroundings. He knew how to communicate through ASL. Then all that ended, and none of his new “keepers” knew sign language. What must he have thought? Obviously, he knew something was wrong and he sought to rectify it. Shows intelligence and rational thought, in my opinion.

What were they thinking?

And the people responsible for this: what on earth were they thinking? They had taught him to live like a human, so why would they think that he would ‘adapt’ to being treated differently? Would it Chimp in a lab cage (Capital Chimpanzee Exhibit, AHS 2009)have been so hard to provide him, in any environment, with his own ‘room,’ with the bed and pillow and blankets that he was used to? Hire someone who knew sign language? Not understanding that, to me, shows less intelligence and rational thought than Nim demonstrated.

Some of his original caretakers continued to care, and publicized his plight. Nim was rescued by Cleveland Amory’s Black Beauty Ranch. He lived there until his death at 26 in 2000. I don’t know if he had his own bed. But he had chimp companions that he liked and humans with whom he could sign. I hope he also had all the peach ice cream he wanted.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, July 22, 2011. See my Lost and Found for a look at another wonderful book by Elizabeth Hess, about an American county animal shelter.

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