Updated: Jul 25, 2022
There used to be a time when exotic pets were all the rage in the USA. That time is right now, but was also before. Movies and TV were full of people that owned or were just friends with creatures that wouldn't hesitate to rip your face off. Millions of people rushed to buy the various monkeys, apes, big cats, wolves, and bears they had seen on TV. All of them hoping to form the sort of magical connection only seen on screen. These people either end up learning what the "wild" in wild-animals means the hard way once the animals become too mature to handle. This obviously bled into the scientific community, where many nerds have the dream of claiming the title of Beastmaster. Nim Chimpsky is the result of a team of psychologists from Columbia University's attempt to disprove Noam Chomsky's thesis that only humans have language.
Project Washoe - Nim's Predecessor
Washoe was a female common chimpanzee born in West Africa in 1965. She was captured for use by the US Air Force as a part of the US space program. Her life as a test subject began in 1967 when Washoe was just 2 years old. She was the focus of Allen Gardner and Beatrix Gardner's project at the University of Nevada, Reno. They would raise her in an environment as close to that of a human child would have and attempt to teach her American Sign Language (ASL).
Much like Nim would follow Washoe, she herself was a follow-up project from the earlier Project Vicki. These earlier attempts at teaching human language to chimpanzees had failed due to a lack of the physical characteristics required to produce voiced sounds, according to Gardner's thesis. Washoe had her own trailer outfitted with everything a person would need, a couch, a refrigerator, a bed with clean sheets, clothes, a toothbrush, and a comb. She would often wear clothes and eat dinner at the table with her human 'parents'.
Washoe was able to pick up around 350 words of sign language. She and her mates were able to construct phrases that indicated things that they didn't know the words for. The team found confirmation of Washoe's ability for deep emotional thought after one of her caretakers missed work for several weeks following a miscarriage. When the caretaker returned, Washoe gave her the cold-shoulder as a sign that she was unhappy. The caretaker signed to Washoe "my baby died" after which, Washoe looked down for a while before signing the word "cry".
Habitual observers of animals will know that most animals have some kind of internal emotional process. The concept that only humans experience the world through an emotional lens is reductionist and short-sighted. Washoe died at the age of 42, on the 30th of October 2007.
Nim's Life as a Project
Primates living out their entire existence as the subjects of human experimentation is nothing new. Comparatively, Nim and Washoe got a pretty good deal when you consider the millions of primates still being kept caged in laboratories with make-up and diseases pumped into their bodies regularly. Nim was raised in similar conditions to Washoe, though Project Nim was an attempt at furthering the successes of Project Washoe.
Herbert Terrace, professor of Psychology at Columbia University, organized the circumstances of Nim's life. He, Nim, would be raised as a part of a human family in an attempt to endow him with a natural sense of human communication. Nim was the product of a chimpanzee mill at a primate research center in Norman, Oklahoma. His mother was used as a baby factory, and every baby born to her was taken from her to be used for research.
Nim was 'adopted' by Stephanie LaFarge, a former student of Herbert Terrace who lived in an apartment with her new family. The chimpanzee was treated as a part of their family, dressed in human clothes and eating what the family ate. According to interviews with LaFarge's family done for the Documentary, Project Nim, none of the family members were fluent in sign language. Nim's education only started after he spent three months living with his human family. This delay and the rapid development of baby chimps combined and led to Nim's limited vocabulary.
Nim was taken from Stephanie's care after Terrace hired a student, Laura-Ann Petitto, with whom he had a romantic relationship at the time. The chimp and his teachers were set up in a mansion owned by the university, and his sign language training started in earnest. During this period, it is said that Nim's vocabulary expanded to around 120 signs. Skeptics claimed that Nim was merely imitating communication and not actually showing any understanding of what he was signing.
During this time, Nim grew strong and aggressive, as is the purview of young male chimpanzees. He often attacked his caretakers, leaving them with severe bites that would require the hospitalization of at least one researcher. Chimps in the wild also display these aggressive outbursts during adolescence, but their fellow chimps have the strength and thickness of skin to survive such assaults with little damage. Humans are much softer and weaker animals.
Following a fall-out between Terrace and Petitto the latter was dismissed as Nim's teacher. She was replaced by Joyce Butler, who would oversee Nim's tutelage for the remainder of the project. Terrace decided to end the project soon after the switch was made, claiming that they had collected enough data. Nim would be sent back to the primate research center from whence he came. This is all the more tragic if you consider the fact that Nim thought of himself as human. When given the task of sorting photos of humans and chimpanzees, Nim would put his own picture on the human pile. He was cruelly abandoned by all of his caretakers and would later die at only 26 years of age.
A Quotable Chimpanzee
Nim continued learning sign language after being abandoned at the primate research center. Most notably, he learned to say, "Stone smoke time now," when he wanted marijuana. That's right, in the time-honored tradition of irresponsible animal owners, the caretakers at the center would get the apes stoned. Somebody call Terrence McKenna! Perhaps they could see how depressed Nim became after his one and only visit from Herbert Terrace. Falling into a malaise and refusing food for days after seeing his one time experimenter. Nim likely thought that Terrace had come to liberate him from what Terrace himself described as a "surprisingly more primitive" facility than he remembered. The chimpanzee would later be featured in the magazine, High times, the original article has unsurprisingly been lost to time.
Nim was sold to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, where he spent most of his time highly sedated and being injected with various chemicals. The scientists working for LEMSIP would regularly see Nim signing for 'hugs' and 'play' during his time there. Later Nim would be rescued from the lab by the Black Beauty Ranch, operated by the Cleveland Amory group operating out of Texas.
Nim lived a mostly isolated life at the ranch. He became violent on several occasions and would throw TV's and is noted to have killed one dog. His behavior improved a bit after he was joined by several other chimpanzees on the ranch after 10 years of living there alone.
Nim Chimpsky's life of tragedy ended on the 10th of March 2000.
Nim's life was turned into a documentary by award-winning filmmaker, James Marsh. The documentary is called Project Nim and includes several interviews with the researchers involved in Nim's life. Nim Chimpsky's life was deemed a failure by Herbert Terrace, who despite early optimism considered the experiment a failure. He outlived his failure and continues to works at the University of Columbia in New York.