MOVIE: Project Nim (2011)

[This is another late review from 2012!] WhoaMG.  This is a painful, powerful documentary to watch and, frankly, kind of a must-see for that very reason.  It’s about the life of a chimpanzee purchased as a newborn by a researcher and bounced around from lab to lab most of his life.

It all started in the 1970s, when a psychology professor at Columbia University, Herbert Terrace, bought the chimp for a research project focused on ye olde “nature vs. nurture” question.  Named Nim Chimpsky, after linguist Noam Chompsky, Nim was placed with a human family and raised as if he were a human baby, in an attempt to see if chimps, who have DNA almost identical to ours, could learn to “speak” English fluently (via sign language, obviously, but using grammatical sentence structure and expressing their emotional states and thoughts, etc.).  Nurtured and loved deeply by his human mother — who, weirdly, also breast-fed him — Nim seemed to have the perfect life.  As he grew, he learned many things, including how to dress himself and sign well enough to make simple requests and express some emotional states.

When Nim became a strong and strong-willed teenager, however, everything changed.  Nim was increasingly jealous of his human mother’s husband, and would lash out at him regularly.  Events escalated until, finally, the family had had enough and Nim was suddenly taken away and moved to a huge estate, where another young woman, Laura-Ann, took over his care and education, eventually teaching him over 125 signs.

The bigger Nim got, though, the more confused he seemed to get by the dichotomy between how he was being raised (as a human) and what his insides were telling him (as a chimp).  He would do incongruous things, like caress a cat lovingly one moment and try to violently hump it the next, and he became more and more dangerous to the humans around him.  At one point, he bit Laura-Ann’s arm wide open.  In another incident, as one researcher passed him to another, Nim turned to the new person and viciously ripped open the man’s face, then began to sign the word “Sorry” over and over, clearly startled and distraught by his own behavior.

After the two serious injuries, Terrace decided he’d had enough and called the experiment a failure.  Nim was just a wild animal after all, and even though he could clearly communicate, was smart and loving, and had only ever known life as a human being, Terrace dumped him like he meant nothing to him, selling him to another research facility.

After that, Nim was bounced from lab to lab, with little concern for his happiness or recognition of his unique abilities.  Having never seen other chimps before, Nim didn’t know how to communicate with or relate to them, and the chimps around him in the labs would frequently intimidate and scare him.  Withdrawing into himself,  Nim tried to reach out for human contact, and did make a lifelong friend in one keeper, Bob Ingersoll.  But despite Ingersoll’s love and care (he would take Nim for long walks in the woods, and even let him try out beer and marijuana — oh, you know, it was the 80s!), the best he was finally able to do for Nim was to have him transferred to a sanctuary at last, where Nim lived out the rest of his life alone in a concrete cage with bars along one side.

Though Ingersoll continued to visit Nim after he was transferred to the sanctuary, Nim died there at the young age of 26 (chimps usually live to be 55-60).  Ingersoll’s explanation for Nim’s early death:  1 part stress, 2 parts broken heart.

This film is a wonderful, touching, and gut-wrenching story about a truly amazing creature who was wounded indelibly by the hubris of human beings.  Terrace and his students never bothered to think about the ramifications of failure — of nature taking over as Nim grew — or what they would do with Nim when the study was over and funding disappeared.  Years later, his first human mother came to the sanctuary to visit Nim, and he nearly killed her, still so hurt and confused about her abrupt, heartless rejection of him.

Since Nim’s death in 2000, the National Institute of Health has found the most invasive research using chimps unnecessary and pulled funding from several primate centers.  Nevertheless, over a thousand chimps are still out there in government custody, with only a small number of those sent to sanctuaries each year, most of which are desperately underfunded in the first place.  I’m not actually against research on animals, but I am against thoughtlessness and cruelty.  We have to do better.  Watching this film would be a really good start.  But brace yourselves for a heart-breaking ride, because this movie made me weep like no other.

By the way, if you want to help chimps and support the sanctuaries that take them in to try to give them a better life, there’s a really great organization right here in Washington State that could use your help.  It’s called the Chimp Sanctuary, and it’s located in Cle Elem.  You can meet some of the chimps on their website, and donate quickly and easily right there to help rescue and protect more of these incredible animals.  Even a dollar will make a difference!  Go send them a dollar right now!  And thank you!

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Documentary


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