Project Nim

Project Nim (2011) movie poster

(2011) director James Marsh
viewed: 07/21/2011 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

Project Nim, a documentary about a celebrated and abused chimpanzee who was taught to use sign language, is a cautionary tale of bad science and animal cruelty.  The chimp, who was named Nim Chimpsky as a jibe at Noam Chomsky, was taken from his mother in cold and brutal fashion at 2 weeks of age from a facility in Oklahoma.  A professor at Columbia University, Herbert S. Terrace, “borrowed” Nim and somewhat randomly handed him over to a maternal, free love hippy mom who already had a large mixed family to raise, and asked her to bring him up as if he were a human and to teach him sign language.

The goal, if there really was a stated one, was to see if Chimps could actually learn “to speak”, created sentences.

The woman to whom he was given had no knowledge of sign language nor chimpanzees.  From what the story tells, hardly anyone involved in the program knew one iota about animal biology, care, or their natures and needs.

The story starts out with the cute baby Nim frolicking with the woman and her children, bonding with her, and showing early signs at male rivalry, a natural competition for dominance in the wild.  Their unstructured life led to little development of signs, and after two years as living as “one of the family”, Terrace abruptly removes Nim and places her in the hands of another graduate student with no experience, but who is more dedicated to structure and teaching.  And Nim, after being removed from his “second mother”, does indeed begin to learn.

Terrace seems to have chosen his female assistants by their attractiveness and it seems particularly dubious that he seems to have had sexual relationships with them all as well.  Terrace is noted by many of the assistants interviewed that he never had that much direct interaction during the “study”, only showing up for photo-ops.  The story made headlines (I vaguely recall it from my own childhood, the “teaching of sign language to chimpanzees”.  It’s little wonder that this study hasn’t carried on after seeing what the study really consisted of.)

Of course, Nim is a chimpanzee and chimpanzees grow to be big and strong and aggressive creatures, potentially very dangerous to humans, stated to be 5-6 times stronger than a man.  This led to attacks, increasingly brutal, behavior more and more hard to manage, and Terrace eventually has Nim shipped back off to the facility from which he came, a comparative prison to his experience in life and his first experience of other chimps.

It’s the kind of life that could cause great psychological damage to a human, and it’s doubtless that the chimpanzees have a great amount of awareness and emotion.  In his new home, a young hippie researcher befriend him and bonds with him, taking him out for walks and smoking dope and drinking with him.  There are lots of kinds of animal abuse in the film, but it only gets worse.

With the facility in financial dire straits, many of the chimps, including Nim, are sold to a medical testing laboratory which is something right out of a horror film.  They are tested with hepatitis vaccines and other treatments, locked in tiny cages, and operated on, drugged and worse.

I don’t know why I am retelling the whole story here.  Maybe it’s because it is a long, convoluted journey, a multitude of cruelties, mistakes, mostly in the name of science, occasionally in the name of intended kindness.

What’s really shocking is the lack of oversight to this “experiment” and how utterly unscientific this whole thing was.  Terrace, after the fact, renounced his original findings that they had succeeded in teaching Nim language, saying that the data didn’t show consistency in crafting a sentence.  When the scientific data is mathematically measured, they come up with nothing.  But the truth is that Nim did learn a great deal of words to sign and could express his wants to people.  So the data may be true but that seems not the utter measure of the experience.  Considering how unscientific the study to begin with, taking in no consideration of this creature’s own being and experience.

I took Felix and Clara to this film, their second documentary feature that I’ve taken them to this month.  I was a little concerned about the content being upsetting and also because the film is PG-13.  Our usual PG-13 films are more intense or scary, the ones we’ve seen.   I wasn’t sure what this one would have in store for them exactly.  They weren’t as upset as I’d worried about.  They actually liked the film quite well, and I’ve been really impressed with how much of the narrative stuck with them.

Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire (2008), it’s a competent documentary, a compelling story, a thought-provoking and disturbing consideration of the epic mistreatment of a sensitive, sophisticated creature.

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