March 27, 2008: 2:12 PM EDT
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Book review: This chimp was no monkey

A fascinating look at the life of Nim, the chimpanzee who was raised in a human household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Nim Chimpsky: a compelling exploration of animal psychology and what it means to be human.

(Fortune Magazine) -- Sometimes I stumble across a book that leaves essential details unexplained and critical questions unanswered, that stacks the deck in its identification of villains and heroes, and whose author tries to adopt a pose of cool disinterest but can't suppress partisan passion.

In fact, I stumble across books like that frequently, and almost always I close them quickly. But every once in a while I encounter one like Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human (Bantam), a book so surprising, so persuasive, and so damn compelling that I raced from page one to the end forgiving its flaws and emerged genuinely changed by the experience.

I realize this is saying a lot. But so does Elizabeth Hess's book. In 1973, a Columbia University psychologist named Herbert Terrace, aiming to disprove the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky, set out to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee. The adorable creature picked for the experiment (and named so purposefully) would be raised as a member of a human family, and as much as possible socialized into human ways.

The short version of the story is that Nim may have been the most engaging playmate, the most promising student, and the cutest damn toddler on the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Let me point out here that I am generally indifferent to animals and believe in the necessity of using some species for medical research.)

Human identity

He learned a remarkably large vocabulary, took on innumerable human habits and inclinations (this being the 1970s, those habits included cigarette smoking), and bonded not only with his human siblings and parents but also with Homo sapiens as a species. At one point, asked to sort through a stack of photographs of humans and chimpanzees and separate them into appropriate piles, Nim put his own picture in with the humans'. As one of his babysitters said, "I don't think Nim had any concept that he was a chimpanzee."

Which, Hess demonstrates, turns out to be the unacknowledged reality lurking within the best-intentioned of animal studies. For when Nim grew too large, too strong, and too temperamental to continue what had become a domestic charade, there was nowhere to go. Far more fortunate than most chimps used in similar experiments, after bouncing around from facility to facility Nim eventually ended his days in a cage on an animal preserve in Texas, where he passed the time vainly trying to use ASL to communicate with unknowing tourists who came by to gawk.

This tale is not entirely a grim one; Nim was one fascinating ape, and the people whose lives he touched are a compelling bunch. (I do think the author is unfairly rough on Terrace, whose instincts and motives seem nobler than Hess believes them to be.) But at one point in his post-Manhattan, pre-Texas travels, Nim was locked up in a laboratory in the Hudson Valley, where chimps bred for medical experimentation were imprisoned in substandard cages, cramped and isolated.

Though Nim had to abide the grim conditions, he was spared the experiments. But the doomed chimpanzees who endured them, largely bred for the purpose, were in fact better off than Nim was. They had never known the reward of human love and companionship, and then had it ripped away from them.

The reality, writes Hess, was that "Project Nim had no exit plan." Of course not: from the beginning, Project Nim was not really about Nim, but about the species that chose to study him.  To top of page

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