Now Elizabeth Hess’s unforgettable biography is the inspiration for Project Nim, a riveting new documentary directed by James Marsh and produced by Simon Chinn, the Oscar-winning team known for Man on Wire. Hess, a consultant on the film, says, “Getting a call from James Marsh and Simon Chinn is an author’s dream. Project Nim is nothing short of amazing.”
Could an adorable chimpanzee raised from infancy by a human family bridge the gap between species—and change the way we think about the boundaries between the animal and human worlds? Here is the strange and moving account of an experiment intended to answer just those questions, and the astonishing biography of the chimp who was chosen to see it through.
Dubbed Project Nim, the experiment was the brainchild of Herbert S. Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University. His goal was to teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language in order to refute Noam Chomsky’s assertion that language is an exclusively human trait. Nim Chimpsky, the baby chimp at the center of this ambitious, potentially groundbreaking study, was “adopted” by one of Dr. Terrace’s graduate students and brought home to live with her and her large family in their elegant brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
At first Nim’s progress in learning ASL and adapting to his new environment exceeded all expectations. His charm, mischievous sense of humor, and keen, sometimes shrewdly manipulative understanding of human nature endeared him to everyone he met, and even led to guest appearances on Sesame Street, where he was meant to model good behavior for toddlers. But no one had thought through the long-term consequences of raising a chimp in the human world, and when funding for the study ran out, Nim’s problems began.
Over the next two decades, exiled from the people he loved, Nim was rotated in and out of various facilities. It would be a long time before this chimp who had been brought up to identify with his human caretakers had another opportunity to blow out the candles on a cake celebrating his birthday. No matter where he was sent, however, Nim’s hard-earned ability to converse with humans would prove to be his salvation, protecting him from the fate of many of his peers.
Drawing on interviews with the people who lived with Nim, diapered him, dressed him, taught him, and loved him, Elizabeth Hess weaves an unforgettable tale of an extraordinary and charismatic creature. His story will move and entertain at the same time that it challenges us to ask what it means to be human, and what we owe to the animals who so enrich our lives.
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Elizabeth Hess is a journalist who continues to write about animals. Her articles have appeared in the Village Voice, New York magazine, the New York Observer, the London Telegraph, the Bark, Art in America, Art News, Artforum and many other publications. She is the winner of a Genesis Award (1998) for an investigative article on New York City’s animal control program, which appeared in New York magazine. Along with Nim Chimpsky, her books on animals include Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter. Hess is currently writing a social history of the American Pit Bull Terrier.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Early Days on the Chimp Farm
NIM'S STORY BEGINS AT the research facility in Oklahoma that was founded by the notorious Dr. William Lemmon. Early in his academic career chimpanzees became the focus of Lemmon's lifelong research, and helped to make him—for a time—the most prominent psychologist in Oklahoma. Over several decades, he authored many of the state's mental health policies, helped to shape numerous public programs, and virtually founded the clinical psychology department at the University of Oklahoma (OU), where he remains a legendary figure thanks to his early chimpanzee experiments. From its inception until its demise, Lemmon ran the Institute for Primate Studies (IPS), the place where Nim Chimpsky was born. Lemmon bred and owned Nim. As a result, the psychologist was responsible, often behind the scenes, for every major event that shaped the chimp's life, both before and after Project Nim.
Virtually everyone who ever had anything to do with Lemmon (Bill, as he was called) or his chimpanzees came away with strong feelings about the psychologist, but what those feelings were varied considerably. Some loved Lemmon, some despised him, and some still won't speak about him at all because it's just too painful. Lemmon, who has been dead for more than two decades, remains a controversial figure in Norman and the wider primate world, where his unconventional methods of animal husbandry and research are often attacked. He ruled his chimpanzees with an electric cattle prod, as many unenlightened keepers still do, and tried every possible disciplinary technique, including shock collars, all kinds of guns, and a pair of Doberman pinschers trained to tree escapees. (This last was not an effective method; the chimps dominated the dogs and ripped one of them apart.) When asked by a friend, "How do you discipline a chimpanzee?" Lemmon responded, "Any way you can."
The chimps learned to respect their keeper. Lemmon's graduate students also understood their place. One claims that he locked her in a cage inhabited by a few adult chimps, just to see her reaction. She survived to tell the story, one of many about the sadistic pleasure Lemmon took in pushing people to the edge. Lemmon's proteges, employees, and patients all worshipped him—or fled.
Still, however much he was feared by both his experimental animals and his students, Lemmon was one of a very few researchers in the 1960s who had any expertise in raising and breeding chimpanzees in captivity, where they rarely survived or reproduced. Lemmon and his carefully selected graduate students studied chimpanzee mating habits, sexuality, and social development, and they even collected data on the personalities of individual chimps. Unfortunately for Lemmon, and for the field in general, little of this research, apart from a handful of articles, was ever published. Lemmon's vast knowledge of chimpanzees mostly benefited those who became members of his prestigious inner circle in Norman. Ultimately, the scientific community labeled his work "anecdotal," their way of deeming it worthless. For better or worse, he was an outsider who was destined to remain on the margins because he refused to maintain his academic status by regularly publishing his results or writing books. In the long run, this arrogance did not serve him or his animals well. But in the short run, it made IPS, known as the "chimp farm," a compelling place for students to cut their teeth on primatology.
Lemmon was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1916. A prodigy of sorts, from a working-class family, he earned his doctorate at Ohio State University, where he studied with Carl Rogers. The promising young psychologist had a background in biology and a passion for the theories of Sigmund Freud. By twenty-eight, Lemmon had married, fathered three children, and become the director of clinics in the psychology department at the University of Maryland. There he fell in love with one of his graduate students and moved on to the next chapter of his life.
Dorothy Lemmon—known as Dottie—met her husband-to-be in a classroom, where she found herself enthralled by his erudite lectures, liberally sprinkled with literary references and stories about his personal experiences. Dottie was said to have had a Mona Lisa smile and a dark, mysterious appeal. After Lemmon divorced his first wife he and Dottie promptly moved to Norman in 1945, where Bill had been offered a position in the department of psychology at OU, and where they had two children, Peter and Sally. Dottie, like her mentor and husband, became a clinical psychologist. But she opened an office at a local mental health center, maintaining as much distance as possible from Lemmon's university sphere. Throughout her life, Dottie's carefully nurtured independence from her powerful husband was critical to her emotional survival. She had her own practice, her own friends, and even her own plants—in a greenhouse where her husband was not welcome to dig around. He had a greenhouse too, separate from hers, where there was more than enough dirt.
However, the greenhouses, as well as the chimpanzees, came later in the marriage, some years after the Lemmons found an affordable farm, which they bought in 1957. Located on the outskirts of Norman, on East Lindsey Road, it was a private paradise just a short distance from the OU campus. The original wooden farmhouse, built in 1907, was far up on a hill, at the end of a long, winding driveway, surrounded by 140 acres of meadows, woods, and ponds. There were few amenities—the house had no bathroom or running water—but the land was spacious and ideal for farm animals, or any other kind of animals. At the time Lemmon bought the farm, animal behavior and comparative psychology had already become the focus of his research, and he envisioned turning the place into a research institute, which he would stock with multiple species. He promptly began to design one, which was constructed over a period of years, as funds became available.
Although Lemmon supplemented his university income with money from a highly successful private practice, as a professor in the 1960s he made a modest salary, so it took some time for his dream to become a reality. Meanwhile, he started to purchase exotic birds and small mammals the way other people buy baseball cards or stamps, grabbing one of each kind to round out their collections. By the early 1960s, the Institute for Primate Studies had come into existence on Lemmon's farm, and moving there enabled the psychologist to add more birds as well as border collies, spider monkeys, gibbons, sheep—and anything else he could get his hands on. Lemmon liked to purchase one or preferably two of each species, Noah's ark-style, so that they would breed and he could scrutinize their mating habits, gestation periods, and physical and psychological details of reproduction. He sold the resulting offspring to other researchers or gave them away to friends. On occasion, he did more elaborate, and less humane, behavioral experiments on his animals. The farm allowed him to be more ambitious. Hidden away from OU, Lemmon had a new sense of freedom.
Over the years, the old wooden farmhouse was transformed into a modern residence covered with a pinkish stucco surface, and other buildings were constructed to house Lemmon's growing menagerie. The animals appeared content and well cared for. The grounds were dotted with jerry-rigged pens and numerous gardens where flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables were plentiful. Both Lemmons were amateur horticulturists, in their separate greenhouses, and the farm, though not a lavish place, had a genuine elegance of sorts, a seedy rustic charm.
Lemmon's popularity as a professor and a psychotherapist grew as rapidly as his farm. Well known on campus for his idiosyncrasies, he was admired by his students for his refusal to conform to convention—in either the academy or his personal life—regardless of the consequences. Even Lemmon's attire challenged university standards. At a time when most OU professors wore jackets and ties to class, Lemmon, a proto-beatnik, wore leather sandals over bare feet and shaved his head; he had wild bushy eyebrows and a well-trimmed goatee. During cold spells, the professor donned a belted trench coat, the collar flipped up, as if he were a spy. Typical OU faculty members dressed up, not down; they also did not keep cobalt-blue hyacinth macaws, the largest species of parrot in the world, in their campus offices.
Not surprisingly, Lemmon was a target from the very beginning of his time in Norman, where everything he did was noticeably different from what other professors were doing. Already in 1946, the dean of the university was asking Lemmon (in a letter on official stationery) to wear socks and shave off his signature goatee, as people were beginning to "think he was eccentric." Lemmon continued to wear his sandals barefoot but immediately shaved off his goatee—and grew it right back.
But the problems between the charismatic Lemmon and the conservative university, which started early and escalated for years, went far deeper than surface appearances. The more consequential trouble had to do with Lemmon's academic views, the radical nature of his chimpanzee research, and the highly irregular relationships he fostered among his students, his colleagues in the clinical psychology department, and even the patients in his private practice. Lemmon, inhabiting some parallel chimp universe, had much in common with Alfred Kinsey. He shared Kinsey's intensity, his originality, his love of controversy—and his interest in sexuality. By the 1970s, Lemmon was doing research on clitoral orgasms in female chimpanzees. Operating on the cutting edge, he exerted a magnetic effect on many of those in his sphere of influence, who saw him as a visionary, a leader. Lemmon, however, would never make a significant contribution to his field. His ideas were often too far out to be fundable—...
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