Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human

My "adopted chimp" reading Nim's story
I have a heart for great apes.  I love stories involving gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans and I think these amazing animals can provide valuable lessons of compassion and conservation for humans to learn.  Last year I spotlighted one of my favorite young adult novels, Hurt Go Happy, which features a fictional chimpanzee who speaks sign language, and this year I encountered a book dealing with the same subject from a nonfiction perspective. 
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.

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.

It's impossible to approach this book without falling a little bit in love with the precocious Nim. The photographic documentation of the tiny baby chimp who dresses in toddler clothes; growing into a midsized animal with enough sense to wash dishes and play with pets; and finally a full grown ape with a deep intelligence in his all-too-human eyes reveal the closeness of chimpanzees to homo sapiens in a way that statistics about genetic similarity will never match. Though it may not conclusively answer the questions of animals' ability to use language what Nim's story does is raise even more questions about our compassion towards other species. This is a book for lovers of animals and fans of science and anyone who enjoys an out of the ordinary biography. 
 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. 

3 Response to "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human"

  1. Jennifer says:
    August 19, 2011 at 12:39 AM

    I loved this book. It really shows all the sides to the story.
    I know someone who raised chimps as a college thesis. Unfortunately, here they were considered research animals which must be destroyed after the project is completed (they might have stages a jailbreak; I'm not saying).

  2. Anonymous Says:
    August 19, 2011 at 7:21 AM

    Hi there,
    So glad you read Nim Chimpsky in conjunction with the film. I appreciate all your comments.
    Elizabeth Hess

  3. Sam (Tiny Library) says:
    August 19, 2011 at 4:42 PM

    I have mixed feelings about experiments such as these, although I'm sure the book made fascinating reading. I think it's good that projects like this show how intelligent animals are and hopefully inspire people to treat them with respect, as well as finding out important things, but on the other hand I just don't like the idea of it.

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