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Project NIM—A Screening

NEAVS president, Dr. Theo Capaldo, attended a special screening of the upcoming HBO documentary, Project Nim, produced by Simon Chinn, directed by Oscar-winner James Marsh, and based on the book The Chimp Who Would be Human by Elizabeth Hess. NEAVS was invited by Bob Ingersoll, director of Mindy’s Memory, a sanctuary for monkeys. Ingersoll played a major role in Nim’s life from the day he was abandoned by the research project on which the film focuses to the day he died. Ingersoll along with other people featured in the film led a Q&A when the film was over.

Dr. Capaldo reflects on her reaction to the film.

Project Nim tells the factual and moving story of Nim, one of the first chimpanzees to be used in language experiments, and in so doing unveils the story of so many chimpanzees who suffered his same fate—torn from their mothers, raised as humans, used in behavioral/language research and then abandoned to invasive, even deadly, biomedical research. The opening scene immediately sets the tone. The footage (actual and reenactment) coupled with a simple voiceover relating the raw facts, put us at the genesis of all the abuse: the moment chimpanzees are denied their birthright and taken into human hands. The faces of Nim and his mother, Carolyn, washed me up in that sad and tragic day for them. Nim’s mother had six babies taken from her before Nim.

From here, the film compels you to be a part of the confusing and ever changing world to which Nim forcibly adapted. His journey was demanded by researcher Herb Terrace, so that Terrace could make his claim to fame and learn something about language and its uniqueness to humans or its tranferableness to other species. The underlying science and Terrace’s agenda (which in the end he, in so many words, admits was a failure) were lost to me in the unforgettable footage of Nim, trying beyond anything else to be who he was and deal with the life choices forced on him.

Nim reacts as we all would. As a psychologist, I have seen human children torn from their families and tossed from foster home to foster home plunge into fear, anxiety, anger and ambivalence—the natural consequences of such lack of developmental stability. Yet, at the same time they retained their childish joy, enthusiasm and hopefulness against all odds until it was finally extinguished. We see Nim bonding to his caregivers only to lose them because they abandon him or were forced to abandon him because of circumstances beyond their control. We watch the faces of his most caring teachers blanch with sadness when they are told the project is over and Nim is being sent back to the lab in which he was born. And we watch as Nim holds on to certain bonds and does not allow his everchanging circumstances to make everyone in his life untrustworthy.

Ingersoll cared for Nim when Terrace abandoned the project and sent Nim back to the Institute for Primate Studies at the University of Oklahoma. The lab’s director, psychologist William Lemmon, used dogs, electric cattle prods and other punitive means to control the chimps. Lemmon, like Terrace, eventually shut down his project and sold the chimps to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP). James Mahoney, the LEMSIP research veterinarian, met Nim when he visited Lemmon in prelude to purchasing the chimps. Nim was transferred to LEMSIP where he along with a few hundred other chimpanzees would live confined to slightly smaller than 5’ x 5’ x 7’ cages and endure years of invasive research in hepatitis, HIV and other protocols. Controversy mounted over Nim’s perceived special status, given his ability to sign a human language and his having been cross-fostered and raised as human. To avoid the pending lawsuit on Nim’s behalf, LEMSIP released Nim to Black Beauty Ranch, a sanctuary for rescued hoofed animals.

When Ingersoll is finally allowed to visit Nim at Black Beauty, he is greeted by Nim’s enthusiasm and an invitation to play. Nim lived alone at Black Beauty for years. This footage of Nim’s joyful meeting with his old, beloved friend was for me the hardest scene to watch. Nim’s heart, despite what he suffered, was still open. While the film is filled with poignant moments like this, it does not shy away from the other reality of who Nim also was. In his growing chimpanzee-ness, the film gives you a solid hold of just how foolish and potentially deadly it is to try to make them like us and force them to live in our world. Nim acquiesced to this with some degree of tolerance and grace. That is, until those unpredictable moments erupted and he would attack or severely bite a more fragile (compared to his strength) human. More than once, he caused severe injury. He would then sign “sorry” as if he was confused by his behavior and the harm it caused. The film, in addition to being a testament to the cruelty and insensitivity of research, will also go far in reminding us how wrong and dangerous it is to have “exotic” animals like chimpanzees as companions or entertainers.

The evening ending with a Q&A with several of the people who were interviewed in the film. After the last Q&A comments, I asked Elizabeth Hess what motivated her to write the book. She said simply, ‘I wanted to do a biography of an animal.’ The film does justice to her ambition. I had wondered what those on stage who had been part of Nim’s life would think Nim might say to the audience right now—if he had been human enough. I didn’t ask the question, though, because I realized the film had already answered it on his behalf.

Project Nim was released in July 2011 by Roadside Attractions and HBO Documentary Films.