What is it that makes us human? Scholars like Noam Chomsky believe it is the structures and interactions through our language that define us as the complex creatures we are. We imagine that only humans have the desire to communicate using complex speech patterns, grammar and syntax. What, then, would humans have to say if other animals were able to learn even the basics of these language rules and use them to communicate? Throughout the years, many apes have been taught to sign, and James Marsh’s film Project Nim shows the life journey of one great ape, Nim Chimpsky, who was raised as one of us.
This beautifully filmed documentary begins with Nim’s birth and travels as he begins to grow in a human household. Nim was brought up with children, as a human child. He was breastfed like a baby, clothed like a baby and like other babies; he was taught how to communicate with his family. Nim’s ability to learn sign increased exponentially during his lessons at Columbia University.
When the professor behind the language study, Dr. Herbert Terrace, was not satisfied with the results of the study, Project Nim was shut down and Nim was shipped off. Nim was beginning to reach chimpanzee adulthood and was deemed too unpredictable to handle. Abandoned and alone, Nim, who had never had interaction with other chimpanzees was dumped at a primate institute in Oklahoma. Though he could not say in human terms, Nim’s emotions and comprehension of the situation is evident in this film. Heart-wrenching to watch, Nim was sold from that primate institute to a medical research lab. Eventually, he was bought and sent to the Black Beauty Ranch, a place for abandoned animals, where he was able to live the rest of his life.
Humans like Bob Ingersoll, who has dedicated his life to protecting animals, spent time taking care of Nim and eventually made sure his final home was a comforting one. Mr. Ingersoll continues to work in a secret network finding havens for chimpanzees and other great apes who are being used in medical research labs across the United States. Bob Ingersoll was present at the Tulsa, Oklahoma screening of Project Nim and was able to answer questions regarding the time he spent with Nim. Ingersoll gets emotional recalling the situations Nim was forced to endure and encouraged the audience to be active in the ongoing problem of animal abuse in medical research.
Nim’s story ignites the human core in all of us that makes us realize how close we really are to these magnificent creatures. Though some scientists argue that Nim was unable to establish the fundamentals of sentence structure, there is no denying that he completely broke the language barrier between humans and apes by being able to express his emotions, his needs and his personality. There are other primates out there like Nim who need the help of compassionate humans. There are over five hundred apes in holding for medical research in the United States. Groups like www.releasechimps.org show the ways that people can get involved in passing legislation to protect these apes.
To find out more about Nim’s story or find screening times and locations, visit www.project-nim.com. Apes have a hard enough time fending off humans in their own habitat, we should do everything we can to protect these magnificent creatures. Humans could learn a lot by studying Nim’s ability to love and forgive.
by Samantha Jones