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Project Nim tells the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was a part of an experiment about the capabilities animals have to communicate with humans. Through the well-meaning misunderstandings of the humans that cared for him, Nim experienced many trials and tribulations in his lifetime.
Nim’s story begins in 1973 when he was just two weeks old. He is ripped from his mother and transported to New York to live with a bohemian, hippie family. Stephanie LaFarge becomes his surrogate mother, and she quickly grows attached to him. She even chooses to breast feed him for several months.
Dr. Herbert Terrace started the experiment to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory that animals are incapable of learning language, and he decided to do this by teaching Nim American Sign Language. The debate about whether or not animals have self-awareness, and can communicate that awareness to others, began around this time. But even today 40 years later, the debate continues. Terrace felt so strongly about this project that he even mocked Chomsky’s name by giving Nim a very similar name.
Part of the reason it is easy to forget that chimps are animals and still have wild instincts, is because they can do things that look so human. The conflict between a human’s love for an animal that results in the desire to transform that animal into a furry human and the animal stubbornly staying true to its natural instincts is the basis for much of the heartbreak and misery that occurs.
Director, James Marsh commented in an interview with Lauren Wisscot on globalcomment.com that part of his inspiration for Project Nim came from the documentary Grizzly Man, a story of a man whose love affair with grizzly bears ended fatally. Both films discuss the topic of turning the love for an animal into a belief that the animal is imbued with human characteristics that it simply does not possess.
The first hiccup occurs with Dr. Terrace’s choice of surrogate family. No one in the family knew very much sign language and LaFarge was more intent on developing a mother-child bond than recording scientific data. Dr. Terrace grew frustrated with the lax recording and moved Nim to an island owned by Columbia University. A young and talented undergraduate student named Laura-Ann Petittio took over the experiment at that point.
Over the next several years Nim’s signing improved dramatically and he even managed to make up some of his own signs. As he entered adolescence his animal nature began to show, and he grew more and more violent. One time he bit one of his handlers so badly that she had to be hospitalized for several months. A number of different caretakers came in and out of his life as a result of the difficult nature of handling a large, sometimes violent anima.
Once the experiment ended, no one was sure what to do with him, and he ended up in a number of places, including being subjected to various animal experiments at New York University’s medical research facility.
Nim’s story is not the only one of an animal that is subjected to the fickle will and whim of humans, but it could certainly be one of the most moving. James Marsh has been praised for his ability to make this documentary more than just a history lesson. Told through a series of narrators who were involved with Nim and enhanced by archival footage and images, it creates an amazing story that draws the viewer into Nim’s almost surreal life.
For anyone interested in what defines people and animals, or even those just wanting to watch a good—and true—story should consider either making it to one of the limited screenings this summer, or renting it when it comes out later this year.