Can animals learn languages and communicate with us? Can the gap between human beings and animals can be narrower through that? One fascinating experiment at the center of an engrossing documentary “Project Nim” started with these curious questions, and it is interesting to watch this scientific research going through its ups and downs while it is also horrible to watch how the hubris and other human flaws of its participants ruining the life of its innocent subject.
The subject of this linguistic experiment was a young male chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, which was a joke on a famous linguist Noam Chomsky(he thought that the humanity is only species inherently equipped with language skills). Born in 1973 at the facility for primates in Oklahoma, Nim was taken from his mother not long after his birth for the experiment supervised by Dr. Herbert Terrace, a linguistic professor at the Columbia University in New York.
As Dr. Terrace ordered, Stephanie LaFarge, who was one of Dr. Terrace’s assistants at that time, took Nim to her home and treated him like one of her family members as a part of their research. As a small, cute baby chimpanzee, Nim quickly became a part of the LaFarges, though the research process was not so exemplary. LaFarge and her husband Wer were your average hippie couple in the 1970s, so Nim was taken care of with unconventional care and love. While she actually breast-fed Nim, LaFarge also introduced him drinks and marijuana. I am sure not many animals get such experiences like that while interacting with humans.
Anyway, Nim was happy to be at LaFarge’s home, but Dr. Terrace was not pleased about the inefficient teaching process of his research. Nim was again transferred to the other equally comfortable place just for a more efficient research. Terrace’s other assistants Laura-Ann Petitt, Bill Tynan, and Joyce Butlerand worked on him, and Nim quickly learned around 125 sign language words. In addition, he also learned how to use bathroom; in one documentary footage, we actually see him flushing down the toilet after defecation.
This looks fantastic at first, but there is an inevitable question: were his ‘words’ actually the language activities operated by intelligence or just the trained behaviors controlled by instinct? Some of you may already know the answer if you have some experience with pets, and that is exactly what Dr. Terrace’s research eventually arrived at with little fanfare. Sure, as one of the animal species closest to our human beings, chimpanzee is a clever animal who can use sign language words, but it is quite doubtful whether Nim really used them as language to communicate with his human handlers. In my opinion, he used sign language to get his rewards as much as the cats at my campus ingratiatingly meow to me to get a tuna can from me(I frequently succumb to their plea, by the way).
The director James Marsh, who won an Oscar for the documentary “Man on Wire”(2008), moves between documentary footage, interviews, and re-creation scenes to effectively tell this interesting story to us. He also gives equal chances to the people associated with Nim to tell the story in their respective views. While Nim himself only appears in the documentary footage part, his life story vividly comes to us through what they tell us. He was a special chimp even though the research did not result in anything remarkable; he made quite an impression on the people involved with him, and, while fondly remembering him, some of the interviewees are still bitter about what happened to him after the research was finished.
What happened to Nim uncannily resonates with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”(2011), which happened to be released in the same year this documentary came out. When the research was over, Nim was sent to back to the facility where he was born. He was locked in cage just like other chimpanzees in the facility, and that was just a mere beginning of his long plight during which he was moved around several places. When he seemed to find a comfortable place at last, the owner did not know much about how to take care of him in spite of his good will.
Most of the people in Nim’s life were kind and patient, but they all disappointed him in the end. In case of Dr. Terrace, he becomes an arrogant and obnoxious guy who was the most responsible for Nim’s misery while he casually admits his faults and mistakes during and after the research. He did not spend time much with Nim except when it was really necessary for his research and its promotion, and, after he sent Nim back to the facility as soon as the project was over, he did not try to save Nim from being locked in cage even when he published a book about his research.
And there were the other problems due to Nim’s biological nature. When he was young and cute, it was pretty easy to accept him as a family member, but it became pretty hard to control him when he grew older and stronger along with increasingly aggressive animal instinct. He frequently bit his human handlers, and some of the interviewee in the documentary shows us the stitches in their arms and other parts at one point. In one bloody case, he bit one of them so savagely on her cheek that her cheek was literally punctuated. Nim did wrong things, but it was not his fault – he was just driven by his nature which was unwisely overlooked at the start of the project.
While it is a compelling scientific research story, “Project Nim” is a sad, tragic tale of one animal cruelly treated by the people who were supposed to take care of him. He trusted them, but he got nothing but long years of misery in exchange, and it is disheartening to see Nim in his later life when he was left alone and depressed in the cage. At least, his last five years were relatively happy and peaceful, but that’s a little consolation compared to his damaged life on the borderline between man and animal.