Review: Project Nim

Directed by the James Marsh – maker of the Academy Award-winning ‘Man on Wire’ – Project Nim (2011) tells the story of an unsettling attempt at the domestication of, and communication with, a wild animal. In the 1970s, Dr Herbert Terrace of Columbia University commissioned an experiment that involved the adoption of a chimpanzee into a human family, brought up to learn sign language in an attempt to develop inter-species communications. Thus Project Nim was born.

Stephanie,  the mother figure of the family, breastfed Nim, allowing him to explore her feminine body-form to which Nim became increasingly interested by. Indeed Nim’s team was very bohemian, frolicking in the grass and even smoking marijuana with the chimp. But despite treating Nim like a human, his animalistic behaviours prevented the development of a more secure relationship. With time, Nim became increasingly more aggressive towards the ‘alpha’ male members of the team, regularly causing serious injuries that required hospitalisation and stitches. Incidences like these prevented teachers providing long-standing support for Nim and the Project.

With the failure of the project, the team lost funding and Nim was destined to join an institute. Having never experienced other chimps before, Nim was seemingly distressed upon introduction. Apprehensively, the trusted team coaxed Nim into the cage; they had let him down.

Nim soon developed what seemed like depression, and became increasingly aggressive “acting like a spoilt child”. What he needed was to socialise. However, at the time, LEMSIP (animal-testing) researchers were observing the possibility of taking Nim into labs, testing for human vaccines against Hepititis B. The original bohemian team were outraged, stating that only the press would give them any help. Fortunately, a lawyer got involved and, seeing that Nim was indeed brought up in a spacious human environment, his cage treatment at the institution was even worse. The monkey was released.

The bohemian team were pleased to then learn that a rehabilitation ranch in texas had bought Nim, quoting lines from Black Beauty as their entrance slogan. The ranch, originally designed for horses, was ill-equipped for their new arrival, and Nim became depressed again. The team installed a television for Nim, which he proceeded to destroy. The ranch eventually bought a female partner for Nim a year later.

10 years later, the female had fallen into ill health. Then, in 1995, LEMSIP closed and the ranch owners paid to take in several of the chimps that were consequently left homeless. Nim lived with his new companions for five years until he was 26, when he sadly had a heart attack and passed away.