Project Nim

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In 1973, behavioural psychologist Herbert Terrace attempted to challenge Noam Chomsky’s thesis that only humans can have language. This involved raising a baby chimpanzee - punningly named ‘Nim Chimpsky’ - in a human family, then rigorously teaching him s


Going by the evidence of Project Nim, it’s hardly surprising that one day apes will rise up against us, eventually ruling some kind of Planet Of The Apes... Seriously, though, James Marsh’s true account of the unfortunate, unnatural life of chimpanzee Nim is fascinating, sobering and at times deeply upsetting.

Beginning with Nim’s separation from his mother and ending with the greying beast bored and isolated in the cage of an animal rescue ranch, Marsh’s film constitutes a series of emotional gut-punches that leave you wondering how so many people could be (at worst) so emotionally atrophied or (at best) so numbingly naive.

Not that Nim was always abused. In fact, for a good portion of his life Nim lived in unimaginable (for a primate) luxury. His very early years were spent with an academic hippy family as the eighth of seven children. His ‘mother’, Stephanie LaFarge, even breastfed the chimp. Then, when Herb Terrace felt LaFarge’s study lacked the requisite structure, the chimp and his teachers were ensconced in an empty mansion. Yet this only sharpens the outrage when Terrace ends the experiment and Nim is returned to captivity, to encounter members of his own species for the first time, before being sold into animal experimentation.

Nim is hardly just a cute victim, though. An adult male chimp is five times stronger than a human, with fangs that could literally tear your face off. One of Nim’s carers had a cheek torn open. Another had her head pounded repeatedly into a pavement. Nim may have expressed an endearing love for cats (“Cat me Nim hug”), but he also tried to hump them, and killed a yappie poodle by hurling it at a wall. The sheer irresponsibility of the project is exposed on many levels.

But Marsh doesn’t simply present a rogue’s gallery of humans. The likes of Bob Ingersoll, the chimp’s firmest champion, show there’s hope for us yet. Despite the central subject, this is very much a human drama, and it’s most compelling for the way it shows how Nim formed and affected relationships with and among the non-chimp players. It’s tragic, though, that this particular ape’s misadventure on the Planet Of The Humans couldn’t have been fictional.

Gripping, heart-wrenching, powerful and a sad indictment of scientific practice, which shows that ‘human’ and ‘humane’ are all-too-often mutually exclusive.