Movies about animals generally seem to either fall into the cloyingly sweet family category or tragic, heartbreaking dead pet territory. I wanted to find something a little different this week and immediately thought of Project Nim, a documentary that happened to catch my interest while flipping through the channels recently.
Nim Chimpsky was the subject of an experiment in the 1970’s to determine if a chimpanzee could learn to communicate using American Sign Language. The experiment, led by Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace, began by removing two-week old Nim from his mother and placing him with a human foster family. Nim was meant to grow up as a human child, cared for and treated as a normal baby. The living conditions in his first home were unique (breastfeeding, smoking pot, drinking alcohol, no discipline, etc.) and eventually deemed to be inhibiting his progress in the experiment. From here, Nim went through a menagerie of various handlers and trainers, most with little to no experience dealing with chimps. The experiment was eventually shut down after several years by Terrace, who determined the results to that point to be inconclusive and not worth the continued research.
The real point of interest here are the incredibly odd assortment of people who raised Nim throughout his life. While most were ill prepared for the realities of raising a chimp, they all seemed to truly connect with and care for him. Professor Terrace, on the other hand, distanced himself from Nim as much as possible. Nim’s life post-experiment went about as well as could be expected for a chimp that was pampered his entire life until being sold and, for the most part, abandoned. This isn’t to say that Project Nim ends on a downer necessarily, but I guess I would classify it as “bittersweet”.
This is an incredibly interesting look at the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity and their use in scientific experiments. It stays interesting throughout without getting preachy. Check it out if you’re in the mood for a good documentary.