Nim Chimpsky: Yes, that’s right—Nim Chimpsky

By on March 19, 2008 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

It doesn’t take an advanced degree to conclude that other animals, particularly mammals, have real smarts. But during the last 20 years, there’s been a raft of publishing on the commonsense conclusion that animals think and are capable of sophisticated cognition.

When I first got involved in animal protection, I read the late Donald Griffin’s book "Animal Thinking" (1985). Griffin’s work was path-breaking and his collective works are an answer to the reductionist scientists who thought that all animal behavior was driven by evolutionary preprogramming.

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be HumanIt seems, more and more, that the debate is settled—and decidedly so in favor of our recognition of animal cognition. This month, National Geographic had a cover story about animal thinking. Animals solve problems, create and use tools, show cognitive complexity and flexibility, and retain memories. Dolphins, apes, and elephants have a sense of self, being able to recognize themselves in the mirror. Some animals can recognize individual faces and remember them longterm. There is even a dog in Austria who can recognize several hundred words of vocabulary.

And last month there was a biography published about Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was the subject of a language acquisition study in the 1970s.

Nim had been part of a famed experiment in interspecies communication at Columbia University, one that sought to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee to refute the linguist Noam Chomsky’s claim that language is exclusively a human trait.

Nim’s story represented an important chapter in the study of animal minds, but as Elizabeth Hess shows in "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human," it also had larger meaning in the world of animal protection and beyond.

Hess gives voice to many of the people who lived with Nim, took care of him, taught him and loved him. The bonds they formed were moving, and it’s clear that these relationships meant something to Nim, too, for he was a highly social creature.

From the vantage of 30 years, however, it’s fair to say that Project Nim was not a success, and that among its conclusions we can offer was the failure of certain of its principals to do right by Nim. All too often, he was at the mercy of human ego, envy, intrigue, and power struggles. Personal, scientific, and financial difficulties bogged the project down.

The book traces Nim’s uncertain path from the primate research center where he was born, to the Manhattan brownstone, Columbia University classroom, and New York suburban villa where he learned to sign, to the biomedical laboratory where he might have ended his life in a study of the hepatitis vaccine.

Chimpanzee Lulu at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch
© The HSUS
Lulu, one of three chimps who live at
Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch

That his story didn’t end there is largely the result of intervention by The Fund for Animals and Cleveland Amory, who ran a campaign to get Nim transferred back to the breeding facility of his birth, and then negotiated his transfer from his owner, the Oklahoma scientist William Lemmon. In 1983, Nim moved to Black Beauty Ranch, where he soon gained a new companion, Sally. In 1997, after Sally’s death, Black Beauty took in three more chimps in need of homes—Kitty, Lulu and Midge—and they became Nim’s companions. They’re still there, enjoying the great care of our dedicated staff.

I had a special interest in Nim because I saw him dozens of times at Black Beauty Ranch, where he lived until his death in 2000, struck down at the relatively young age of 26 by a coronary occlusion. It was a tragic death to those who worked with him and loved him. And there was a larger wrong, for Nim, who had been through so much and who deserved a chance to grow old at Black Beauty.

Even in death, however, Nim’s story remains important, for it raises big questions, questions about the general use of primates in biomedical and psychological research, questions about the captivity care of such animals, and questions about our larger duty to animals.

The HSUS is deeply engaged with these questions. Our Chimps Deserve Better campaign addresses the challenge of bringing the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research and testing to an end. Our Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, operated in partnership with The Fund for Animals and renamed in honor of its founder, cares for chimpanzees cast off by others. Our efforts on behalf of the Captive Primate Safety Act are designed to prevent the misfortunes that so often result when chimps and other primates are kept by private parties who lack the skills to properly care for them.

In all of these activities, I like to think, we’re extending Nim’s legacy.

Animal Research and Testing

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