Documentary Catch Up: ‘Project Nim’ is Downright Unsettling

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Nim Chimpsky in Project Nim
Photo: Roadside Attractions

I have started digging through the pile of screeners I’ve been receiving and I started with one of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, only Nim never actually starts talking and the apes never “rise” against their human oppressors. However, you do end up hating the people and their treatment of these animals and only begin to feel good when you hear them tell stories of how they were scratched and/or bitten.

Project Nim began in the early ’70s as a young chimpanzee is the seventh of his mother’s children to be taken from her, this stat alone is enough to rip at your heart and it happens inside the film’s first three minutes. From there we watch as Columbia professor Herbert Terrace begins what he has dubbed Project Nim by handing this two week old chimp (named Nim Chimpsky) off to Stephanie LaFarge and her family to essentially be raised as a human child.


Herb Terrace, Stephane LaFarge and Nim

While I will admit that Stephanie and her family appear to love Nim, they clearly didn’t know what they were doing and are just the first wrong step in the animal’s upbringing.

As soon as you hear LaFarge admit she found it humorous when Nim would act up or bite her husband, or how she would let him smoke weed you begin to wonder if she thought she had acquired a toy or an actual living, breathing animal that needed care. Most disturbing was to learn of her fascination with Nim’s interest in her naked body and her need to actually say nothing “sexual” ever happened. Sorry, I would assume nothing sexual ever happened, but the fact you feel you need to clarify it scares me a little Stephanie. And the fact she admits to breastfeeding Nim is about one mile away from where I draw the line.

The next chapter of Nim’s life has him removed from Stephanie’s home and ultimately housed in a giant estate owned by Columbia where Terrace would assign teachers to work with Nim, teaching him sign language and a variety of other skills, one of which was a hope he would soon learn how to use the toilet. Again, there seems to be a genuine caring for Nim, but soon human interest becomes more important as the teachers soon begin having relationships with one another, one of which causes Nim’s first real teacher to leave. Essentially, Nim is experiencing life, more or less, as a young child would and is being exposed to all of the fallacies of human existence from drug use to broken families. Not exactly the best way to approach a so-called experiment, let alone treat a young chimp stolen from his mother.

Nim’s surroundings continue to shift. At age five he is moved back to the primate sanctuary he was taken from where it seems he gradually grows into having a decent existence under the care of Bob Ingersoll who manages to embrace some of the human traits Nim exhibits, but respects and treats him as a chimpanzee (although he too believes giving him a little pot is okay, but I guess none of us are without our flaws) and with Bob, Nim appears to thrive.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there as Nim is soon shipped off to a research facility as the story of this real-life Caesar continues to play out.

What’s most excruciating about this entire thing is the ignorance shown nearly every step of the way. People dressing and treating a chimpanzee as a human and then confused when he acts like a chimpanzee. But what gets me the most are the people that were involved actually sitting down and making themselves available for interviews. I don’t know how Marsh did it, but if I was the majority of the people involved in turning this chimpanzee’s life into a world of confusion and despair I would hide my face in the sand before ever allowing myself to be seen on camera, attempting to justify or come up with excuses for what I either did or allowed to be done.

At one point a lawyer is brought in and he makes a great point. Considering Nim has essentially been raised as a human being it stands to reason he should be viewed as one in the eyes of the law. Would anyone treat a human the way Nim was treated? Often caged, sometimes cattle-prodded. Of course, before any legal action can be taken, Nim is removed from the situation that prompted the lawyer ever becoming involved, but how does that free any of the people involved from guilt? Sure, many of the people involved are seen crying on camera, good for you, you should feel bad about what happened, but that doesn’t change the fact it happened.

There’s a reason that while watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes you want the apes to rise. You want them to win. While watching Project Nim you want to see Nim stand up, yell out “No!” and storm off into the forest with his fellow captives.

There is a price we all pay for the humanity sacrificed in scientific exploration. On some level we are all guilty for what goes on whether we use a product that was tested on animals or don’t care to ask whether it was or not. I’m certainly not innocent in this respect and as I typed this paragraph I looked in my bathroom to find shampoo that was “NEVER TESTED ON ANIMALS” and body wash that carries no such guarantee.

While Nim’s life began as a scientific experiment based on communication, he is a unique subject in that he also represents the life of chimps caged and born in captivity, shipped off for product testing and other scientific experiments. It’s an eye opener to be sure and after watching the film last night, it’s amazing how the next morning it can cause me to ask, “If my shampoo isn’t tested on animals, why is my body wash?” There’s a fascinating realization that while we may not be directly involved, we are all connected to Nim in some way.