Project Nim Highlights Heartbreaks of Chimpanzees in Captivity

Project Nim, a documentary film directed by James Marsh, is the story of scientist Herb Terrace and his experiment—initiated in December, 1973—to teach sign language to a chimpanzee named Nim. It is also a gut-wrenching tale of what we humans do to chimpanzees in captivity.

Early in the film, Terrace talks about his research project as if it was the first to examine chimpanzees' acquisition of American Sign Language (ASL). Yet, in 1967, scientists Allen and Beatrix Gardner began research with an infant chimpanzee, Washoe, in a procedure called “cross-fostering.” The purpose of the research was to see what human behaviors—including communication with a gestural language—Washoe would acquire when treated exactly like a human child.

The humans who raised Washoe all used ASL while around her. The Gardners' research showed when young chimpanzees were treated like human children, raised in a stable human environment, and immersed in ASL, they acquired and used signs in patterns that resembled those of human children.

The Gardners' project was never mentioned in Project Nim, even though by the time Terrace had begun his project the Gardners were well on their way to replicating their own findings with other cross-fosterling chimpanzees, Moja and Pili. Later, two other chimpanzees, Tatu and Dar, also acquired signs in the Gardner's laboratory. In systematic and rigorous experiments the Gardners and later Roger and Deborah Fouts showed that the chimpanzees gave new information to humans, signed to other chimpanzees when no humans were around, and taught signs to each other.

In Project Nim, Terrace claims that Nim was simply imitating his trainers. One of the problems with Terrace's study, however, is that he failed to replicate the Gardner's rich cross-fostering environment with a stable family of caregivers. Instead, as the documentary clearly shows, a parade of caregivers moved through Nim's life, as he moved from place to place. In studies of human children we know this type of treatment adversely affects attachment and social relationships, which are manifested in communication—the very behavior that Terrace was studying. This is apparent in the film as Nim becomes aggressive and upset when yet another caregiver leaves his life.

Another problem is that in Terrace's project, Nim spent his days in a classroom with trainers drilling him on signs, which is nothing like the conversational style in which young children acquire words or that the cross-fostered chimpanzees used to acquire signs. In post-Terrace days, research showed Nim also behaved in conversational ways when treated like a conversational partner.

The sad part of this story is that Terrace ultimately dumped Nim like many, many other chimpanzees kept as pets or used in entertainment or research. Nim finds himself in Oklahoma at the Institute for Primate Studies, then in biomedical research at the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, and then alone at an animal sanctuary. The film contains disturbing but accurate footage of a “knockdown”—rendering a chimpanzee unconscious with an injection for a procedure.

In Ellensburg, Washington, at the Chimpanzee & Human Communication Institute (CHCI) on the Central Washington University campus, the remaining adult cross-fosterlings live in sanctuary. Human caregivers continue to use signs and researchers continue sign language studies. The research that continues today with the cross-fostered adult chimpanzees shows they use their signs in spontaneous, appropriate, and conversational ways with their human caregivers and each other. They initiate conversations, respond to questions, and clarify misunderstandings.

The public visits CHCI to learn about the research. Visitors have a life-altering experience when they witness the chimpanzees signing; when they see the chimpanzees sign “shoe,” asking to see their shoes; when they see the chimpanzees flipping through magazines, naming the pictures; when they see the chimpanzees sign "chase" to one other, initiating a game; when they look in the eyes of a chimpanzee and realize there is a thinking, feeling being in there who has something to say. Visitors wonder about the hundreds of chimpanzees today and in the past infected with diseases, shot into space, drugged for procedures, and kept alone in 5x5x7 foot cages when being subjected to an experimental protocol. They wonder about the fate of free-living chimpanzees encroached upon and slaughtered by humans. The sign language studies have incredible potential to teach people greater respect for our next of kin.

Terrace's conclusions threatened all that can be learned and all that can be gained both for humans and the treatment of captive chimpanzees through sign language studies with chimpanzees. Unfortunately Project Nim may serve to increase that threat. At the same time viewers of the film may leave the theater deeply affected, as was I. This film reminded me of the unpleasant reality of my work with chimpanzees. I live each day signing with three chimpanzees, my dearest friends (that is the pleasant part). Yet no matter how many nice things I do for them, even though my research is noninvasive, even though I take the chimpanzees on their own terms and care very, very deeply for them, I still keep them incarcerated. I keep them from something very basic, yet very important—freedom. The most moving part of the film is when Nim loses his.

There is no alternative to this situation for a chimpanzee in the United States. Adult chimpanzees cannot safely be kept in a home environment. We also cannot send them back to the jungles of Africa. Captive US-born chimpanzees don’t know the culture and lifeways in the jungle any more than I do. One home-reared chimpanzee, Lucy, was sent to Africa as an adult. She appeared very unhappy in her new home, and ultimately was killed by a poacher.

The movie is timely, as our treatment of chimpanzees in the United States is currently being reconsidered. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has initiated a status review to determine whether reclassifying all captive chimpanzees from threatened to endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is warranted.

What we do to chimpanzees in this country is inexcusable and must end now. By supporting endeavors to end inappropriate experimentation on chimpanzees, we can begin to swing our relationship with our next of kin in a new direction, one that treats them with respect and compassion and embraces our similarities.

—Mary Lee Jensvold, Ph.D.
Director, Chimpanzee & Human Communication Institute
Member, AWI Board of Directors
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