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NIM CHIMPSKY by Elizabeth Hess


The Chimp Who Would Be Human

by Elizabeth Hess

Pub Date: March 4th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-553-80383-9
Publisher: Bantam

Sympathetic account of a chimpanzee raised in a human family and taught sign language.

Hess (Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats, and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter, 1998) augments the narrative with the stories of many amazingly dedicated animal lovers and researchers, as well as a goodly supply of other chimps. She begins in 1973 with Nim’s birth in Norman, Okla., at the Institute for Primate Studies (IPS), directed by Dr. William Lemmon. Herbert Terrace, a behavioral psychologist at Columbia University, obtained the newborn chimp with the aim of showing that nonhuman primates could acquire language, in contradiction to linguist Noam Chomsky’s claim that language is an exclusively human trait (hence the chimp’s name). Terrace’s former student, Stephanie LaFarge, was willing to take Nim into her Manhattan home and raise him with her children. For Hess, the tribulations of Lemmon, Terrace and the LaFarge family are as much a part of the story as the charming, obstreperous chimp. In 1975, Nim was transferred to an estate in Riverdale, N.Y., where Terrace’s graduate students took over the challenges of caring for the chimp, teaching him sign language and recording his behavior. In 1977, when Nim had outlived his usefulness as a research subject, he was returned to IPS. Here, Hess expands her story again with more personal portraits and anecdotes, including some choice details about Lucy, a chimp whose humanized lifestyle included French wine and whiskey sours. In 1981, Nim and other IPS chimps were sent to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates in Texas. Media attention and animal-rights activists saved him from experimentation, and Nim eventually found sanctuary at Cleveland Amory’s Black Beauty Ranch. A female companion and an empathetic human with whom to communicate brightened the years before his death in 2000.

Though long and sometimes rambling, this troubling narrative raises important questions about humans’ relationships with and responsibility toward other primates.