Born into captivity, Nim Chimpsky was whisked out of his mother’s arms and plopped into a human family, where he was the center of an experiment by research psychologist Herbert Terrace, aimed at discovering whether chimps can learn language. Nim learned more than 100 words in American Sign Language and, according to the testimony of those he lived with, he often used them in combinations that looked much like sentences. As part of his training, he also had to endure all the other strictures of being human, from wearing clothes to brushing his teeth to spending hours a day in the classroom. He evolved into a bad-tempered and difficult adult. Nim’s life, as chronicled by Elizabeth Hess in Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, often reads like a “good kid gone bad” profile.
Unlike other chimps who have lived serene and gentle lives in captivity, Nim was frequently violent, periodically sending his caretakers to the hospital and, at one point, killing the family poodle. He learned some dubious habits from the humans with whom he identified; he was overly fond of dessert and grouchy without his morning coffee. Once Nim outgrew his baby cuteness as well as his welcome within several families, Terrace astonished his own staff by repudiating Nim’s language skills, claiming that the chimp was merely mimicking language. From there, things went downhill fast for the celebrity chimp whose appearance on “Sesame Street” didn’t save him from a short stay in a biomedical research lab. He was rescued by Robert Ingersoll, a poorly paid staffer who had basically been Nim’s babysitter. Finally, legendary animal rights advocate Cleveland Amory offered Nim a place at the Black Beauty ranch for rescued animals – where Nim continued to sign ASL, even when there was nobody around who understood him.
We know now, from genetics, that chimpanzees are basically human – only they’re a lot more talented with their feet – and Nim’s life raises all sorts of troubling questions, least of which is whether animals are capable of language.