April 2008

Barbara J. King


Betrayed by Science: The Story of Nim Chimpsky

Come with Elizabeth Hess into a surreal world that features chimpanzees who smoke hash pipes; professors who use cattle prods to control the apes they research; a mad scientist who sends chimpanzee after chimpanzee to be raised in human homes in America’s heartland; and the mad professor’s graduate student who earns a Ph.D. for a hands-on (literally) study of female chimpanzee orgasm. Split between Columbia University in New York and the University of Oklahoma in Norman, this world’s central character is Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human, and make no mistake, its tale is not a comedy, but a tragedy.

Nim was to be the star pupil in the 1970s ape-language experiments. Named in defiance of the famous linguist (and political radical) Noam Chomsky, who insisted that humans alone in the whole animal kingdom could learn language, Nim in the end turned out to be something quite different. He learned some American Sign Language (ASL) to be sure, but his life’s meaning emerges most powerfully in another realm. Through his life and his suffering, and now through Hess’s words, Nim strikes at the heart of human arrogance and compels us to ensure that no other animal is betrayed by science as he was.

Nim was born at the University of Oklahoma’s “chimp farm” in 1973. The farm (otherwise known as the Institute for Primate Studies) was run by Bill Lemmon, a controversial psychologist who ruled his chimpanzees with what can only be described as a cruel hand (a hand that often wielded a cattle prod). Over and over again, Lemmon snatched newborn chimpanzees from their mothers’ arms in order to “cross-foster” them in human homes. When these human-reared apes were compared to “normal” captive ones, Lemmon felt, primate infant development could be better studied.

Across Norman, young chimpanzees rode in cars and shopped in grocery stores with their caretakers. Amusing encounters between Normanites and apes masked the horrible emotional toll experienced by the chimpanzees. Decades ago, scientists knew less than we know today about the depth of ape emotion and thought. Yet this fact cannot exonerate Lemmon. By the time of Nim’s birth, primatologists had the benefit of 13 years of field reports from Jane Goodall; already, it was abundantly clear that chimpanzees are born into social groups where the mother-infant bond is lengthy and strong.

The chimpanzee Carolyn was Lemmon’s best breeder. “An exemplary and overworked mother,” Hess writes, “Carolyn eventually gave birth to fourteen infants, including five sets of twins, all of whom were taken from her within weeks of their birth, a fact of life in captivity that she never appeared to accept.”

One of Carolyn’s newborns was Nim. On the day in question, Lemmon shot a tranquilizer dart into Carolyn’s thigh. Stephanie LaFarge, the woman who was to home-raise Nim for Columbia University’s Professor Herb Terrace and his language project, prepared to receive the infant. “After several minutes,” Hess recounts, “still breast-feeding her baby, Carolyn fell to the ground, her eyes open… Paralyzed, Carolyn watched as Lemmon rushed into her cage to peel the infant off her body. Hours later, Carolyn, still in a stupor, was staggering around her cage, searching for her baby…”

Off flew Stephanie and Nim back to Manhattan, where Nim joined the large and noisy LaFarge family in their Upper West Side brownstone. If LaFarge was the maternal nurturer, Terrace was the intellectual force behind what became known as Project Nim. He wanted desperately to go beyond the ape-language work already done with the chimpanzee Washoe, raised by psychologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner. Washoe had been taught some ASL: “Washoe had demonstrated to the Gardners that a chimp could learn words, but whether a chimp could use language structurally and systematically to communicate his thoughts was the critical question for Terrace.”

Hess conveys clearly the linguistic methods, and victories and failures, of Project Nim. As Nim grew, more and more people became involved with his training and his care; almost all were completely uninitiated in the needs of young apes. A 15-year-old girl was given full responsibility for Nim for a month one summer. (When informed of this plan, the girl’s parents “fled to Europe.”) At one point, Terrace decided that a more rigorous experimental approach to language learning was needed. Thereafter, Nim’s lessons took place on the Columbia campus: “It was as if he had suddenly found himself at a military academy. Upon entering the classroom, he was required to hang his coat on a hook, sit down at his little desk, and pay attention…”

At Columbia, Nim frightened staff workers by popping up in the halls. One memorable day, he escaped the classroom and liberated some lab rats (the first animal animal activist?). At the LaFarge home, he ran amok and caused damage, both to the brownstone itself and to family harmony. Before long, he was transferred to Delafield, a large mansion outside Manhattan owned by Columbia. There, he tested any new person brought in as a caretaker, “messed all over the house,” and at least once smoked dope supplied by a research assistant. “By the time he was three,” Hess summarizes, “he was too strong to be physically dominated. He excelled at manipulating people, playing off one against another to his advantage, and if that didn’t work, he was not averse to simply biting to get his way.”

Nim had “outlived his usefulness to the study,” and was remanded to Lemmon’s chimp farm in 1977. Caretakers from New York who truly loved him tried their best to ease Nim’s transition, but it was tough going. For Lemmon, this ape who had cooked dinner alongside his human friends, gone for walks with grass under his feet, and played with family pets, was just another research animal. Nim did bond with University of Oklahoma (OU) students: with them, he “smoked cigarettes, requested joints, and chugged beer.”

In 1979, Terrace startled the ape-language world by announcing that the results of Project Nim supported rather than challenged Chomsky’s view of language acquisition. Nim, Terrace now believed, was nothing more than a skilled mimic. In the pages of the prestigious journal Science, he remarked that “his data had unraveled before his eyes. He found no evidence that Nim had any comprehension of what he signed… Nim combined signs only to emphasize words, rather than to form new constructions to express his thoughts.”

Yet there was Nim, in Norman, spontaneously engaging his social partners in conversation.

When funding ran out at the chimp farm in 1982, Nim was sent away again, in a sad echo of his earlier forced separations from his mother Carolyn, from the LaFarge family, from the Delafield caretakers. Chillingly, he was sold to a biomedical facility where the chimpanzees “could see each other across the room, but they could never leave their closet-sized five-by-five-by-six foot cells or touch each other.” Famous by this time, Nim became the central cause of a small band of passionate advocates who succeeded in winning his release from the facility. After some months back at the chimp farm, Nim went to live at the Black Beauty Ranch, Cleveland Amory’s sanctuary in Texas. Even there, he was too confined, too isolated, and too little understood for too long. Eventually he was paired with a female named Sally. Nim adored Sally; now, when he escaped from his cage, he clasped Sally by the hand and invited her to explore the Ranch with him.

At every place Nim was sent, he signed or tried to sign with people. He taught other chimpanzees, and some willing humans, how to sign a few words. His will to communicate was astonishing.

Hess hits as hard on Nim’s acting out as she does on his linguistic prowess. In New York, a new volunteer met Nim “and left with twenty bite marks on his hands and arms.” Nim bit a regular assistant so hard that her facial nerves were severed. He “frequently jumped out of windows, broke every lock he could reach, smashed furniture, and smeared walls with his feces.” When Stephanie LaFarge visited Black Beauty Ranch, Nim “grabbed her ankle, pulled her off her feet, and dragged her on her back to a corner of the cage…” Observers feared that Nim wanted to kill her.

Kudo upon kudo has been heaped on Hess for this book, by luminaries of the literary and animal-welfare worlds alike. For the most part, I join with them. Nim Chimpsky tells a compellingly readable story, and Hess is smart enough to let the actions of the selfish and unfeeling, or well-meaning but uninformed, people in Nim’s life speak for themselves. There is no heavy-handed moralizing here.

Still, I wish Hess hadn’t harped so hard on chimpanzees as menacing (a word she uses). Young male chimpanzees are strong, prone to aggression, and not meant to live in Upper West Side brownstones or suburban mansions. They are certainly not meant to become attached to loving caretakers only to be separated from them, time and time again. In hindsight it’s impossible not to ask if anyone with power over Nim’s life understood that his increasing aggression stemmed more from human choices than from some kind of flawed chimpanzee temperament. For Lemmon in Oklahoma and for Terrace in New York, Nim was a means to various career-defined ends. I’m not saying that neither man cared for the chimpanzee; just that for them, Nim never, ever came first.

Heroes do populate this book. Bob Ingersoll is one: an OU student in the 1970s, he became a tireless advocate for Nim and for other of Lemmon’s chimps who met sad fates. Yet Hess could have emphasized how often Nim’s bad behavior was created, or at least exacerbated, by humans. Too many unfathomable decisions were made, even near the end of Nim’s life at the sanctuary. A Ranch rule forbade humans from going inside the ape cage, but look at what happened when Stephanie LaFarge visited: “Before anyone could stop her, LaFarge opened the cage door, slipped in, and locked the door behind her.” What was anyone connected with this incident thinking? (And why was the cage unlocked in the first place?)

Hess’s reconstruction of this surreal world unlocked for me surreal memories. I knew Nim and some of the other chimpanzees slightly, just as I knew Lemmon, Ingersoll and other players in this book slightly. I showed up at OU up as a fledgling anthropology graduate student in 1979, right on the verge of the chimp farm’s disintegration and the selling of chimpanzees to terrible places. I visited the farm, I met the chimpanzees, I sat in on the dissertation defense of the chimp-orgasm researcher. The farm was not the place for me: I wasn’t a pot-smoker, I didn’t fit in, and anyway I wanted to study wild primates instead of captive ones (and eventually did). Sadly, I was too green upon arrival to grasp the bigger picture of what was happening, or to feel the apes’ misery. That’s a regret I’ll have to live with.

Nim deserved better from all of us. He died of a massive heart attack at Black Beauty Ranch in 2000. His face haunts many of us still.  

-- Barbara J. King thanks all the anthropologists at OU who offered her top-notch education, opportunities, and support.