Chimp expert provides colorful commentary to riveting documentary, Project Nim
In 1973, a behavioral psychologist at Colombia University wanted to find out just how similar chimpanzees were to humans. Since we share over 98% of the same DNA, Dr. Herbert Terrace hypothesized that humans could raise a chimp from a young age to learn to communicate with humans.
While the chimp in question, Nim Chimpsky (named for prominent language theorist and rhetorician Noam Chomsky) did learn over 100 words in American Sign Language, Dr. Terrace considered the experiment a failure when Nim failed to learn advanced syntax and repeatedly reverted to his animalistic instincts.
Project Nim is the engrossing new documentary from James Marsh, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, that gathers the stories of the key figures in Nim's life: his surrogate family, his teachers and his advocates. Hearing their recollections of the failed research project and the inhumane treatment of this troubled spirit, it quickly becomes clear how much this one animal changed each of their lives.
One figure in the film, primatologist Bob Ingersoll, was in attendance at the The Violet Crown Cinema on Friday and Saturday evening for the initial screenings of Project Nim in Texas. With the film a contender for the Academy Awards Best Documentary spot, Ingersoll has been busy touring the film circuit, promoting the film and sharing resources for primate advocacy and rescue.
"Now that we’re on the short list for the Oscars, I’ve gained a bit of notoriety and people are finally listening to what we have to say," Ingersoll, who now works with the Mindy's Memory Primate Sanctuary, said Saturday night. "Best of all, audiences want to know what is happening now with these chimps that have been rescued from laboratories and testing sites. We're hoping when people see this film, they'll be motivated to help us to fund organizations that help these animals."
Although not present for his adorable childhood days, Ingersoll turned out to be one of Nim's staunchest supporters and best friends during his stay at The University of Oklahoma's chimpanzee research facility. There, the two developed a bond that helped both of them understand the boundaries between human and chimpanzee development.
The Tarzan-in-reverse tale goes unsurprisingly awry when the bestial side of the aging chimp overrides his human advancements. By age five, Dr. Terrace recognized the increasing frequency of aggressive actions that Nim was visiting upon his teachers, and called a halt to the research study.
"I met Nim after Terrace's so-called 'science' had failed," explains Ingersoll. "I met a chimp that had a tremendous vocabulary and a great personality who was severely changed by his environment. Nim was unique in the same way you or I are unique; any story of a chimp treated this way would have turned out the same way."
Seeing what qualified as scientific research back in the day, (and at Colombia University even!), will shock you from the opening interviews. "There was no real science behind this project," states Ingersoll after the film. "If [Terrace] wanted to learn about making it a truly scientific experiment, he would have come to talk with those of us who studied chimp behavior for a living."
Ethical accountability and rigorous experimental design were apparently suggestions rather than requirements for Terrace. In hindsight, it's obvious that giving a baby chimpanzee to a former girlfriend of his to raise without any scientific training whatsoever would doom Terrace's experiment from the very beginning. In this unflinching honesty, the movie is at times heartbreaking, often hilarious and altogether mind-blowing.
Ultimately, the documentary is about the fallible humans who planted too much of their own selfish hopes and desires into this chimp. Each time you see the sad eyes of Nim staring out through the bars of his various cages, you can't help but automatically feel a tremendous level of empathy for this confused, damaged creature. Curiosity is one end of a spectrum that eventually ends in cruelty.
Animal lovers will have trouble with many of the images in this film, while scientists will be amazed by the depictions of bad science. Humanitarians and fans of documentaries like Grizzly Man and Buck will appreciate seeing the similarities and, more importantly, the differences between animals and men. While it may be hard to see at times, Ingersoll and, in his own way, Nim remind us that sometimes we're not the best judges of what is right and wrong.