Sunday, June 26, 2011

Project Nim: a chimpanzee lesson about human arrogance

I loved it when the chimps came to visit.
Back in the 1950s, we had a big cage set up in our basement and, when a Detroit Zoo chimpanzee needed to recuperate from an illness or injury, sometimes dad was able to bring him home. It was one of the wonderful benefits of having a chimp trainer for a dad. With chimpanzees visiting the house since I was born, I kind of thought it was normal to have an ape in the house, but my cousin was astounded when her family came to visit and saw “our” chimpanzee.
I remember the first time I held a chimp’s hand. The first touch between human and ape fingers establishes a connection, and you never forget the soft leathery feel of a chimpanzee’s palm. What should be an ordinary sensation is not. It is unforgettable and forever.
The problem arises when the chimp-human connection becomes subject to human arrogance, sometimes cloaked in love, other times defined by science, and often supported by stupidity.
Today, I saw an advance screening of the new documentary, Project Nim, the true story of a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother to participate in a 1970s university research project on communications. I am absolutely blown away, as was the crowd who attended the sold-out showing at the Silverdocs Film Festival. The movie has all three components: love, science, and stupidity, all adding up to a level of human arrogance that is almost incomprehensible.
Nim’s story begins at an Oklahoma primate research project, when the mother chimpanzee, Carolyn, is shot with a tranquilizer so the research director can grab Carolyn’s sixth newborn, Nim, like they stole all the others. (Already, human mothers in the audience are gasping in pain.) Nim goes from his mother's arms, to adored and beloved “child” of a human mother, to precocious subject of young college students’ attention, to an independent young male actually starting to act like a chimpanzee. All along the way, we hear directly from the people who played the supporting roles in Nim’s young life. As I listened to them tell their stories, from their perspectives, I could identify with their good intentions. And judging by the laughter in the audience at several of the statements, I knew I wasn’t alone in my amazement at some of the naivety, even now.
And arrogance. A university researcher who doesn’t believe the “science” was compromised when he seduced the project’s sweet teenage “education director.” A college graduate who lets a chimpanzee nurse from her breast for months, and then years later thinks she can walk into the (by now) adult chimp’s cage, when he is screaming and “displaying,” and thinks the chimpanzee won’t hurt her. So much arrogance.
Fortunately, Nim also had people who related to him as a chimpanzee, who cared deeply and personally for his welfare.
After Herb, the university researcher, realizes that the adult Nim is a chimp (DUH!), with all a chimpanzee’s strength and unpredictability, he sends Nim back to the Oklahoma facility where Nim has to be in a dark cage for the first time in his life. When the facility runs out of money, Nim is sold to LEMSIP, an infamous experimental research facility, and he is subject to conditions and protocols that are deeply disturbing for any chimpanzee, but are unspeakable for a chimpanzee raised as a human.
Enter Robert Ingersoll, who met and befriended Nim in Oklahoma. Thanks to Robert, and a good lawyer who brought public attention to Nim’s situation, LEMSIP decides to sell Nim to a horse sanctuary. From there, Nim’s life starts to improve again – not to a standard we would wish for, but at least one that is better.
Detroit Zoo chimps Tommy and Mary at our
home for the holidays, circa early 1950s
Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think about two of my family’s chimpanzee visitors. Tommy and Mary, young chimpanzees at the Detroit Zoo, were our guests for Christmas in the early 1950s. How could they fail to steal a heart or two? They both came to zoo as one or two year olds. Tommy arrived in spring 1951, and Mary followed the next April. They each did their five-year stint in the chimp show, and then the zoo transferred them out when, as adolescents, they got too independent to obey orders from the trainers. A slap or punch from trainer will keep a youngster in line but, as Project Nim explains in painful detail, an adolescent chimp is prone to bite. That’s not something you want to show the kiddies who are there to watch chimpanzees act like buffoons. It ruins the fantasy.
I would have been the happiest girl on earth if we could have kept Tommy or Mary, to raise as a member of the family. Or at least, I always thought so. Project Nim shows us, in a totally engrossing – almost haunting – movie, how keeping a chimpanzee, essentially as some kind of sub-human in costume, is grossly unfair to the chimpanzee, besides being just plain stupid and dangerous.
Detroit Zoo transferred Tommy to “Leonardo” in January 1956. I have searched and searched and I can’t figure out who, what or where “Leonardo” is. The zoo sent Mary to Calgary Zoo in October 1956. Within a year, she was gone from there, and there are no records to tell us where they shipped her, although Calgary Zoo is on record for turning chimpanzees over to research facilities. Tommy and Mary became two nameless chimpanzees, probably with numbers tattooed on their chests, likely among the thousands used in research.
Tommy and Mary in the 1950s and 60s, and Nim in the 1970s and 80s. Decades of human arrogance hurt innumerable chimpanzees. The unforgiveable thing is that, in the U.S., it still happens. And we let it continue.
Project Nim is not just for chimp lovers. It won the award of Best Documentary at the Edinburgh Film Festival last week. You don’t want to miss this one. And while we wait for the DVD, read the terrific book, Nim Chimpsky, by Elizabeth Hess.

Update Dec 28, 2011:  If Project Nim gets an Academy Award nomination, look for theaters to rebook the movie. In the meantime, U.S. DVD release is set for February 7. (Amazon is taking pre-orders, for $16.99!) Canada already has their DVD release, but without the extras, and the UK DVD release (with extras) is sometime in early January.

Update Nov 18, 2011: The Academy announces that Project Nim is a step closer to Oscar gold.

1 comment:

  1. I have said Sometimes I am ashamed to be a human being and was told - how can you say that? My answer is 'easily'. The cruelty of humans is unspeakable. For a so-called intelligent race we are unbelievably ignorant and stupid!