Apemania and Project Nim

Do you remember Apemania? That was sparked in part by a series of science fiction movies set on a Planet of the Apes.  Although the more whimsical Dr. Dolittle book series (begun in 1920) pondered on what would happen if we could talk to the animals, it was a 1963 French novel written by Pierre Boulle “La planète des singes” that considered what would happen if the great apes could talk and thought the human primate was the primitive.

Boulle had previously written and published “Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï “ in 1952 which would become the Oscar-winning 1957 movie “The Bridge over the River Kwai.” Boulle would make it to Hollywood for the Oscars, making a short acceptance speech (one word: “merci.”).

That year, 1958 is the year Oliver the Humanzee was born. Oliver would be acquired by Frank and Janet Berger in 1960 who showed him because Oliver preferred a bipedal approach–he walked upright and was called the “missing link” by some.  How he fits into our story, you’ll understand later.

In 1968, a year after the musical “Doctor Dolittle,” Charlton Heston would be running around in a loincloth and Roddy McDowell would be sweating it out under heavy simian makeup as an intellectual chimp who finally believes that humans can talk in “Planet of the Apes.”

The same year as the Dolittle film, two scientists Allen and Beatrix Gardner would begin Project Washoe at the University of Nevada in Reno. There subject would be named Washoe, after the county they worked in. She was a chimpanzee that had been stolen away from her mother in the wild and brought to the United States. Project Washoe would attempt to teach the chimp American Sign Language as a means of communicating between species. Washoe was raised like a human child with caretakers–one of whom would be recent Long Beach State graduate Roger Fouts.

The year American audiences were watching “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” Washoe was leaving her idyllic Reno lifestyle for the cages, cattle prods and eventually Doberman pinschers under the less benevolent eye of Dr. Lemmon at his Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, OK. Fouts, now a Ph.D. would come with her but it would be at a cost.

As people flocked to see the 1971 “Escape from the Planet of the Apes,” and the 1972 “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” and the 1973 “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” according to his book “Next of Kin,” Fouts was escaping the horrors of this inhumane treatment of chimpanzees by turning to alcohol and battling to save both his academic career and Washoe.

The year 1973 was also when Nim was born at the University of Oklahoma’s Institute of Primate Studies and at 2-weeks of age was forcibly taken from his screaming mother Carolyn by Dr. Bill Lemmon and given to Stephanie LaFarge. LaFarge was the former lover of Professor Herbert Terrace. Terrace, a Columbia University behavioral psychologist, had recruited LaFarge to be part of his Project Nim.

Director James Marsh’s documentary “Project Nim” is about that experiment and its aftermath. It is a tragedy that is told with archival footage, present-day interviews with living participants, re-enactments and an animatronic puppet. Just look at the cute chimp in a red shirt used for the posters. If that doesn’t tug at your heart strings, what will?

Marsh won a Best Directing Award for World Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival this year with “Project Nim.”  Marsh previously directed the documentary, “Man on Wire,” about the French wire walker Philippe Petit and his 1974 illegal 45-minute walk between the Twin Towers. While Petit is still alive and could speak for himself, Nim died in 2000. Marsh bases his story on Elizabeth Hess’ 2008 book “Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.”

There were some things that Marsh left out. Nim wasn’t LaFarge’s first chimp charge. That was Bruno. Hess mentions Bruno, but perhaps it’s more interesting to see how Terrace recounts this in his book “Nim.” Terrace had already visited Washoe and the Gardners in 1967. Terrace picks Bruno up from Norman, OK and gives him over to LaFarge (then Lee) and then takes him back in 1969. In 1973, LaFarge had remarried to WER LaFarge and lived on the Upper West Side. She had three children of her own.

Bruno would eventually die in LEMSIP. He had been taught ASL and even in 1988 remembered a few when a student of Fouts’ visited LEMSIP and signed to him. That doesn’t seem to concern Terrace.

LaFarge, in any case, now becomes Nim’s foster mother. She is replaced by Laura-Ann Petitto who becomes the project coordinator and head teacher. Terrace and Petitto take Nim to live in a large mansion until at the age of five, Nim becomes aggressive and hard to control and the experiment ends. Nim is returned to Oklahoma to live in a cage in 1977.

Fouts would take Washoe to Central Washington University in 1980. Washoe and her family would become the centerpiece for the university’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute.

Nim remained and wasn’t part of Washoe’s family grouping. While Nim was in Oklahoma, he made a few friends, notably Bob Ingersoll.

Via email Ingersoll commented, “Washoe was much different, not nearly as easy to get to know, and much harder to actually ‘play’ with or hang out with. Somewhat aloof, perhaps. Nim was fun. He liked to tickle and play chase and all that; Washoe, at least, when I was with her on walks was much different than Nim.   Plus Washoe was female and Nim male, making them much different in that way.”

Ingersoll does appear in Marsh’s documentary and becomes Nim’s champion and in Marsh’s documentary, he’s the nearest person we have to a hero.

The villain, perhaps, would then be Dr. Lemmon. Of Lemmon Ingersoll wrote:

Fouts wrote what worked for him, but not necessarily the truth.   He also used Bill Lemmon as his scapegoat; Lemmon was not the devil as Roger tries to portray him. He was hard and not easy to deal with, but he was no devil….Pretty funny really. Roger was not able to simply stand up to Bill and Bill knew it and took advantage of Roger’s weakness.   Had Roger been a stronger personality he would have fared much better with Bill. I had to deal with Bill as a student. I’m not saying he was easy but you could deal with him. I could anyway.  Roger could not it seems so he ran away from Oklahoma.

Nim is sold to a medical research lab at NYU in 1982. Ingersoll was one of Nim’s friends who worked to raise awareness. Public outcry to rescue the ASL-signing chimps leads to his rescue and he ends up in Texas at the Black Beauty Ranch where he lives until his death in 2000. By that time, Terrace had also publicly denounced his original findings, claiming that Nim didn’t acquire language, but was only a skilled mimic. Hess and Ingersoll disagree and you feel that in Marsh’s documentary as well. We’re definitely on Nim’s side. In the smattering of critics who attended the screening I was at, people snickered when Terrace talked about his relationships with his female students. There was something smarmy about him.

Terrace’s book, the 1987 “Nim: A Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language” (Columbia University Press) can be partially viewed on Google. Goodreads‘ review gives Terrace’s book only one star saying “This is the person who single handedly destroyed primate language research in the U.S. by writing a debunking book that caused all the funding to evaporate overnight. ” Jamey’s review calls it “brick stupid.”

In an article in the Los Angeles Times that states the film Terrace is unhappy that he was portrayed as “a remote, publicity-seeking scientist who exploited a helpless animal without sufficient regard for his long-term well being.”

Terrace told the LA Times, “I’m upset because the film creates the impression the project was a failure because it didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped it would when I started,” Terrace declared recently in his office at Columbia, where he still runs the Primate Cognition Laboratory. “The only line between success and failure for scientists is really whether they honestly report their results, and I did that.”

While Ingersoll, like Hess and Fouts, is clearly on the side of the chimps, he also is critical of the book “Next of Kin,” by Fouts, calling it mostly fiction in his opinion. He puts more faith in the Eugene Linden’s  book “Silent Partners: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments.”

Fouts is retired, but the current director of Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute where some of Washoe’s family grouping continue to live, Mary Lee Jensvold wrote regarding Terrace:

Drs. Allen and Beatrix cross-fostering studies showed when young chimpanzees were treated like human children, raised in a stable human environment, and immersed in American Sign Language, they acquired and used signs in patterns that resembled human children.  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.

In systematic and rigorous experiments the Gardners and later Roger and Deborah Fouts showed that the chimpanzees gave new information to humans and signed to other chimpanzees when no humans were around.  These studies refute Terrace’s claims that the chimpanzees are simply imitating humans.  Despite his initial intent, Terrace failed to replicate the Gardner’s rich cross-fostering environment.  Instead a parade of caregivers moved through Nim’s life, as Nim 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.

In post-Terrace days, research showed Nim also behaved in conversational ways when treated like a conversational partner.  This proved another of Terrace’s failures.  In Terrace’s project, Nim spent his days 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 acquired signs.

The sad part of this story is that Terrace dumped Nim like many, many other older castaway chimpanzees kept as pets or used in entertainment when young.  That part of the story isn’t what made Terrace famous – instead it was his attack on the Gardner’s research.  The repercussions were devastating to the sign language research.  Federal funding for the research became scarce, essentially ending the cross-fostering project.  Textbooks largely focus on Terrace’s conclusions, as if the research truly ended there.

In Ellensburg, WA at the Chimpanzee & Human Communication Institute 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.  This research shows the gap between humans and the rest of nature is only imagined.  The public visits the institute 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.  They wonder about the hundreds of chimpanzees today and in the past infected with diseases, shot into space, drugged for procedures, and living day after day in 5 x 5 x 7 foot cages.  They wonder about the fate of free-living chimpanzees as African forest flora and fauna are slaughtered.  The sign language studies have incredible potential to teach people about our next of kin.  People then view the rest of nature with new eyes, eyes with respect for nature, our planet, and all other beings, human and non-human.  Terrace 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.  Despite this threat we continue our studies in our outpost in Ellensburg; poorly funded financially but heavily funded with motivation to make new discoveries.  Unfortunately the movie Project Nim may serve to fuel threat and maintain the controversy, one that deserves a place only in distant memories.

That’s right. ASL using chimps survive. “Project Nim” is about the life and death of one ASL chimp, but it is not the last chapter. Besides Washoe’s family grouping in Washington state, more locally there’s Booee who lives at the Wildlife Waystation–the only signing chimp in the 45 currently living there.

“Project Nim” also has some effect on Hollywood.

At a recent panel discussion on the technology behind “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and enhanced intelligence at Caltech, the director Rupert Wyatt indicated that the story of Nim along with that of the former Los Angeles-area resident attraction, Oliver the Humanzee, were referenced in this re-writing of the Planet of the Apes first chapter.

Yes, you remember I mentioned Oliver. Oliver had been sold to a Manhattan attorney in 1975, paraded around as a novelty, the supposed “missing link.” He was sold again in 1976 and displayed at an amusement park called the Enchanted Village in Buena Park and would end up at the Gentle Jungle in and around the Los Angeles area in 1978. By 1982, he was sold to a Riverside animal training center and used on Dick Clark’s TV show “Animals Are the Funniest People.”

For those keeping track of celebrity chimps, in 1983 Bubbles was born and adopted by recording artist Michael Jackson. He was cute, but would eventually become too big and strong to handle and be sent to another facility. Oliver was sold to another animal rental company based in Riverside, CA in 1987. In 1989, like Nim, Oliver ended up at a scientific and medical testing lab.

Nim was freed in 1982 and died in 2000 at the Black Beauty Ranch. Oliver was acquired by Primarily Primates in 1996 and was still alive in 2006. You can see a recent video of Oliver on Vimeo (posted this year). In 2009, People magazine asked what happened to Bubbles.  He’s at the Florida primate sanctuary Center for Great Apes.

At the time of Nim’s death, Apemania and the Planet of the Apes series was over. What Apemania and the Planet of the Apes series did was bring  into question the treatment of non-human primates at a time when many chimpanzees were languishing in cages after living well-past their cute and manageable stage. Wyatt, the director of the upcoming reboot noted, the movies made you stop and think: “Do they belong in cages?” Wyatt’s approach in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is to “tell the story of the oppressed.”

Yet the presentation at Caltech and the documentary “Project Nim” left one believing that Nim was the end of the line. Worse, it was implied by the panel that invasive experimentation on great apes–chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans had stopped. Perhaps in places like the U.K. or Australia, but not here. According to Dr. John J. Pippin,  Director of Academic Affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, there are around 1000 chimps available for invasive research. PCRM supports the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act that would ban such research in chimps, gorillas and orangutans, bringing the US in line with other countries like the UK and Australia.

There are, Pippin says, only two countries who continue invasive research involving chimpanzees: the U.S. and Gabon. Gabon doesn’t have the financial ability to do much and the wide-spread and high cost infrastructure as in the U.S. Currently, there are 1000-1200 chimpanzees in privately or federally owned facilities available for invasive research. Only a small percentage can be used at a time which means most of the chimps languish their lives away in cages.

The Great Apes Protection Act which has now become the Great Apes Protection and Cost Savings Act would phase out chimpanzee (and orangutan, bonobo and gorilla) invasive research in a short period of time. It would retire approximately 500 federally-owned chimps to sanctuaries where they could be living with other chimps.

And what about hepatitis and AIDS research? Pippin stated that chimpanzees “have not been useful in advancing human medicine. Most of the information has been bad.” There are, he contends, other methods, more humane methods that makes this inhumane treatment of our fellow primates less justifiable.

He does think “Project Nim” will help people stop and think about this issue again. Although Nim was originally used in non-invasive research, he was passed on to a biological research lab–like many other chimps fostered by humans–and only public outcry saved him. Not all those chimps were saved.

In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the movie focuses on a baby chimp whose mother was being used as a research subject for Alzheimer’s treatment.  That’s science fiction.

Looking at science fact, Pippin, Ingersoll (one of the founders of the primate rescue group Mindy’s Memory) and Jensvold agree that the time for invasive studies on chimpanzees is over. Said Pippin: “It’s time for the U.S. to catch up with the rest of the world and retire these chimps.”  For Ingersoll and Jensvold, chimpanzees can “talk” to us, but except for a handful of scientists, humans fail to listen.

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  1. […] The foxes and minks must be killed. The beagles often do survive and can be adopted through such organizations as the Beagle Freedom Project. This may be true for other lab animals because one of my college housemates had an old lab rabbit. On the other hand, the protest against the usage of primates for experimentation argues that these animals have a greater level of intelligence than others as demonstrated by Washoe and Nim. (You can read my review of Project Nim). […]


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