Peter Singer, The Troubled Life of Nim Chimpsky
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
—Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince
Perhaps Herbert Terrace, professor of psychology at Columbia University, and director of the experiment that is the subject of Project Nim, a new documentary by James Marsh, never read The Little Prince. The sad story of Terrace’s irresponsible treatment of Nim, the chimp he tamed—or more strictly, whose upbringing in a human family he organized—is the guiding thread of this revealing film, which raises important issues about the distinction between humans and animals, about our attitudes toward animals, and about scientific objectivity (or the lack thereof) in behavioral research.
Former researcher Bob Ingersoll on the chimp Nim Chimpsky: “He actually signed ‘stone smoke time now’ to us first. We were shocked. Although we were familiar with chimpanzees that did thing like drinking and smoke cigarettes and that sort of thing, I’d never had a chimpanzee request weed from me. That was an eye-opener.”
[complete interview with James Marsh, Ingersoll, and Jenny Lee here]
Meet Nim Chimpsky. In the early 1970s, he was plucked from his mother’s arms and transported into human homes in the hopes that he would learn sign language and open a window into ape thoughts. What actually happened is the subject of a new documentary, which David Edelstein calls “brilliant.”