Then a psychology graduate student, Ingersoll tried to ease the shock of Nim’s move from a Columbia-owned suburban mansion, where the chimp had the run of the grounds, to a bare-bones facility where he lived in a cage.
Ingersoll, who will participate in a panel discussion after the 7:15 screening Friday, was not part of the Columbia University project. But he communicated with Nim (and other chimps) with ASL, and now has doubts about the ethics of chimp language experiments.
“Even before Nim came back to us, I was kind of suspicious of the whole language deal,” he says. “I was a lot more interested in chimpanzees’ cognitive behavior in the wild. I also saw that, in order to teach sign language to chimps, you had to take them away from chimps. That was difficult for me to justify.”
In the wild, Ingersoll says, “their own culture is rich and full. All the kinds of things we’re looking to give them, they already have.
“I used sign language with chimps, and I don’t know how I feel about it. I feel kind of guilty about it, actually.”
There’s plenty of regret among the people who cared for Nim, who died of a heart attack in 2000 at age 26 — young for chimps in captivity, which can live to 50. Nim was repeatedly removed from people he’d come to trust and put into new situations he seemed to find bewildering. The low point came when he was sent to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP). Nim was to be used in studies of vaccines intended for humans, but Ingersoll helped rescue him before that happened.
Other chimps were not so fortunate. Among the ones that died at the since-shuttered LEMSIP was Bruno, who preceded Nim in Columbia University’s ASL studies but goes unmentioned in “Project Nim.”
Ingersoll rejects Terrace’s verdict on chimps’ use of sign language, because there were too many uncontrolled factors. “It was like: ‘Hey, we have a chimp. Let’s see if we can fit some kind of methodology around this after the fact.’ There’s no science there to take seriously, I don’t think. Yet in spite of all the methodological problems, Nim still learned 150 signs. Which I think is pretty amazing.”
When he first arrived in New York, Nim was put into the custody of Stephanie LaFarge, a hippie mom who was a former Terrace student (and lover). She breast-fed the chimp, which was accepted as a “brother” by LaFarge’s seven children. She and the people who subsequently cared for Nim were not well trained in ASL, and they didn’t use it exclusively.