In 1973, a 2-week-old chimpanzee was torn from his mother at an Oklahoma primate center and sent to New York City. His intended role was evident from the name given him by Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace: Nim Chimpsky. The animal was supposed to learn American Sign Language (ASL), thus disproving linguist Noam Chomsky’s hypothesis that only humans can acquire language.
As recounted in “Project Nim,” the James (“Man on Wire”) Marsh-directed documentary that opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, after five years Terrace declared the experiment a failure. Nim was returned to Oklahoma, where he met Bob Ingersoll, who calls the chimp his “best friend.”
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.
“That’s one of the things Herb did wrong,” Ingersoll says. “He should have had native signers right from the start, who didn’t use verbal English. Because chimps understand verbal English, too.”
The experiment was compromised, he says, “the moment he handed Nim to Stephanie. Because she started talking to the baby.”
Whatever chimps understand of human language, Ingersoll found much evidence of their intelligence and prodigious memory. After Nim moved to Black Beauty Ranch, a Texas animal sanctuary, he and Ingersoll were separated for 12 years. Five minutes after the two were reunited, Nim signed “play” to his old friend.
More recently, Ingersoll has become reacquainted with other chimps, including Mona, whom he hadn’t seen in more than 30 years. “At first she didn’t really recognize me, and I didn’t recognize her. Then I said, ‘Mona, is that you?’ And she immediately signed to me, ‘Bob. Hug hug hug.’ ”
Not everyone clicks with chimpanzees. “It really is a blast working with chimps,” Ingersoll says. “But some people just don’t know how to relax enough to do it. Chimps really can read you, and if you have something going on other than the time you’re spending with them, they read that fairly easily.”
When annoyed, Nim would bite, and he did serious damage to several of his handlers. But he never bit Ingersoll.
“I can’t really say what it is,” Ingersoll says, “but some people have ‘bite me’ written all over them.” He chuckles. “Certain people were bitten multiple times before they realized that they couldn’t work with chimps anymore.”
Nim and Ingersoll were such buds that they used to smoke pot together. “I have taken a little bit of heat for that,” he says, “especially from my mom. But I didn’t introduce it to him.” (Nim appeared as a pot-smoking chimp in High Times magazine in 1975, years before Ingersoll met him.)
“He signed, ‘stone smoke now,’ ” Ingersoll recalls, “and we were actually pretty astounded. When we took Nim out on walks, we didn’t want to disinclude him from anything. It wasn’t like we were blowing shotguns on him. If he asked for it, we let him smoke it.”
Ingersoll, who provided much of the archival footage used in “Project Nim,” remains involved with animal issues. Now a San Franciscan, he’s the president of Mindy’s Memory, an Oklahoma sanctuary with a large population of macaques. He’s also lobbying for the proposed Great Ape Protection Act, which would retire about 550 chimps controlled by the National Institutes of Health.
He rejects the notion that he’s the hero of “Project Nim.” For that role, he nominates James Mahoney, a former LEMSIP scientist whom Ingersoll admits to having “called ‘the devil’ on a number of occasions.” When LEMSIP closed, Mahoney found refuge for 109 chimps.
“I simply did what I would do normally, as Bob,” Ingersoll concludes. “I would have done the same for any of my friends. And I think Nim probably would have done the same for me.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.