|My "adopted chimp" reading Nim's story|
In Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, author Elizabeth Hess chronicles the awkward but innovative experiment in which a chimpanzee was raised as a human in order to test the long held ideal that language is a uniquely human trait. Named in parody of linguist Noam Chomsky, Nim Chimpsky is the center of "Project Nim" and thus the book surrounding his life.I read this book with my husband (a lover of great apes as I am) earlier this year after stumbling upon it at a used book store. Despite the occasionally tearful read, we were both fascinated by the story. Last month we also had the privilege of attending a screening in Chicago of the film Project Nim based on the same story. The documentary is an excellent companion to the book and offers a unique series of first hand accounts from those who lived and directly interacted with Nim himself. Though I enjoyed the deeper details and background given in Hess's work, the movie was exceptionally well-done and is a great summary of the full length text.
Delving into the details of the primate facility in Oklahoma where he was born to the home of his foster family and the research university in New York, Hess unravels a story that fluctuates between humorous, sweet, appalling, and unbelievable. I found myself exceptionally interested in the scientific side of this story but was shocked at the lack of ethics and standards in raising Nim. Though expected to learn ASL, the family he lived with was not fluent in sign language and few of his numerous handlers were intent on keeping records of his progress. Also, when the project began very little thought was given to the long term ramification of teaching a chimpanzee to behave as a human and predictably, the adolescent Nim quickly becomes too much to handle. The tragedy of the personable chimp left without a home or a purpose - and the greater story of research animals in general - is ultimately the most stunning part of Hess's work.