Project Nim: Research Gone Awry

Renae Brabham

I love the Internet, I love Facebook, but I also love Michelin tires. I can love damn near anything except daytime television. But as I was dusting the other day, I did something quite foreign: I picked up the remote and tried to turn on the television. After a few minutes of button mashing/smashing (I assure you there is a difference, one requires potty words), wah lah, the TV came on. Then I carried the lunacy up a notch. I sat on the couch in the middle of the day and watched it.  

I flipped channels and landed on the beginning of a show with a cute baby monkey. It was ETV's airing of Project Nim, an amazing documentary. I watched nearly all of it but had to turn it off near the end, red faced and sobbing harder than John Boehner.
To set the stage, it's the 1970s and a baby chimp is taken from his mother's side and raised for the next five years with humans (solely) in an effort to scientifically conclude whether monkeys have the cognitive ability to grasp the English language and express it in sign language. The film was extremely well made, combining substantial actual footage with the narratives of the participants nearly 40 years later.
Nim was placed in a home in New York, where he played with his human siblings, slept in a bed, and even nursed from his adoptive mother's teat. Okay...that's a whole other blog. Well, Nim eventually wreaked chimp havoc and had to be removed. But he went on to receive schooling by several of the experiment's "teachers" (most of whom were either current or ex-lovers of the project leader, by the way). They clothed him, raised him, fed him, bathed him, walked and talked with him like a human, imagining no doubt that Nim was poised to become the prodigal chimp of the 70s (He even smoked pot... Hmmm. I wonder what led to his inability to focus?)
Long story shortened, the chimp in him bled through. More than five years later, Nim was still a monkey. He'd learned signs, but this behavior was repetitive and didn't necessarily blossom from his genetic makeup as a chimpanzee. When this became apparent, he was tranquilized, put on a plane, and sent to a farm where he was thrust into a cage with the very species that he was supposed to be, but didn't know how. 
In 1982, he and most of the other chimps were sold to a medical research laboratory for AIDS and hepatitis vaccine experiments. In one of the most harrowing moments of the film, former lab staff recall the moment they realized that a few of the creatures, apparently led by Nim, were frantically using sign language to communicate with them through the bars of their tiny cages. Nim didn't adjust well or at all. if it weren't for the kindness of Harry Hermann, a lawyer and animal rights activist, Nim would have died there. Nim actually had his day in court. He was freed after Hermann's argument that a chimp that had been raised as a human had a right to plead its case in court like a human. Desperate to avoid his court turning into a circus, a judge agreed.
Nim spent his final years at an animal sanctuary in Texas by himself. Other chimps were introduced, but Nim preferred people right until the end. Chimps normally live 60 years in captivity. Nim only lived 26.
Quite an experiment, indeed. 
I told Don that evening at the table: "People are killing each other every time we watch the news—some stories so gruesome I can't watch or listen—and yet, there's this little chimp that I can't get out of my head." He shook his head and said, "It's because you can at least relate to the horrific things that humans do to each other, you know that they have done this from the beginning of time." I was taken aback at first, and then I thought about his statement. How bereft of emotion must we be as humans to take an animal that trusts us as the dominant species on earth and manipulate that trust with abuse; psychological or physical. It is said that Nim died of a broken heart. He had loved his human counterparts and when human expectations of him weren't met and his chimpanzee bled through, he disappointed them, and they discarded him. 
I think of an incident in my high school American History class. Our end-of-term exam was to list all the US presidents, including correct chronology and their tenure. I studied for a week, could sing them like the alphabet. On the day of the test, I was so surprised when a friend told me he hadn't studied at all. He asked me to write the answers on the bottom of my shoe and hold my foot up in class so it could be seen. I did it. I got caught. The teacher told me that he was "disappointed" in me. But, then he did the most profound thing. He took my unfinished paper, pointed me to a desk, and he asked me to finish it. When I handed it back to him, he took the answer sheet from his desk and poured over the data. I didn't have a single error. He gave me the paper back with a 100 on it. He told me, "People will filter in and out of your life influencing it for good or bad. But, who you really are will always bleed through."
The friend didn't fare so well. Expulsion, flunked the semester, and had to go to summer school. Not surprisingly, I recently read that my teacher progressively advanced through the years and is now a well respected community leader. Me, I'm still learning. 
So, back to Don's suggestion that a crime against the animal kingdom could be worse than what we do to our own kind. Planetary reasoning prevails. I go back to the cheating incident: in true human fashion, I had the opportunity to acknowledge my faults in the cheating incident with my species. I was able to reason the disappointment that my teacher had with me and choose to mend the gulf. My teacher, in turn, was able to recognize and reason with my motives and human inadequacies. Nim the Chimp didn't  have this opportunity. Once again, it is possible for them to teach us a thing or two.
Namely, sometimes who we are isn't nearly as important as who we are not.