On Aspen screen: hippies, strange decisions and a chimp named Nim
August 1, 2011
ASPEN – Why would a group of humans try to teach sign language to a chimp (and name the animal Nim Chimpsky, after the linguist Noam Chomsky to boot)? At least part of the reason, and the best answer given by James Marsh’s documentary “Project Nim” is, it was the ’70s.
“It was a bunch of strange decisions, a strange historical time,” said Bob Ingersoll, who is featured in the film and who appears for a discussion at a screening of “Project Nim” Monday at 7:30 p.m. at Aspen’s Paepcke Auditorium. “Back then it didn’t occur to me that it was kind of unethical, immoral, weird, to be teaching him sign language, and taking away his right to be a chimp. But now I think, What were we thinking?”
“Project Nim,” which is showing as part of Aspen Film and the Aspen Institute’s New Views: Documentaries and Dialogue series, probes an experiment that began in 1973, when a baby chimp at a primate research center in Oklahoma was taken from its mother. But the British-born director Marsh – whose 2008 film, “Man on Wire,” also focused on a controversial event from the ’70s (Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers) – also offers a revealing look at what indeed appears to be a strange decade. After Nim is taken from his mother, he is deposited in the New York area with a family that is well-meaning, in strikingly ’70s fashion. He is breast-fed by the mother, Stephanie; he is encouraged to experiment with pot and alcohol. Nim is allowed to roam free, much like a pet kitten. His mere presence seems to bring up gender issues between Stephanie and her husband, a hippie poet who became wealthy. Perhaps most indicative of the ’70s spaciness: No one in the family knew sign language.
Nor did anyone seem to anticipate that Nim would grow to become bigger, stronger and more unpredictable. As he does all three – nowadays, it seems, someone would have noted this at the outset – Nim is passed along to another family, then a series of primate centers.
Meanwhile, at the University of Oklahoma, Ingersoll, then a primatology student, was working with two of Nim’s brothers, and keeping abreast of what was happening with Nim. When Nim was brought to Oklahoma, Ingersoll stepped in. It was something of a golden period: Nim never attacked Ingersoll – a claim not all of the chimp’s handlers could make – and the two became best buddies. Ingersoll, a devout Deadhead, says on-screen that he’d rather hang out with Nim than with Jerry Garcia. Ingersoll, who still works with chimps – his projects include serving as board president of the Oklahoma sanctuary Mindy’s Memory; cataloguing all the chimps in America; and working to retire chimps from the National Institutes of Health – says that not all chimps were cut from the same mold as Nim.
“You know when you’re 9 and you meet a friend, and you wake up in the morning and the first thing you think is you want to find him and go ride bikes and have a catch – his personality was like that,” the 57-year-old Ingersoll said from his home in San Francisco. “He was open to having fun and being a friend like that. His favorite signs were ‘play’ and ‘tickle me here’ – how could you not like having a friend like that?”
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Ingersoll has had a close relationship with some 50 chimps, and been acquainted with hundreds more. One of those he knew well, named Kelly, was Nim’s opposite.
“She was sensitive and not open to just anyone’s attempts to play with her,” he said. “All chimps are who they are, with their personalities. You spend time with chimps and you see that right away. Chimps are like humans: They all have their own personality.”
Ingersoll recognizes that chimps are not humans. But he believes chimps are a special enough species that they should have a category of rights that doesn’t exist at the moment. Such rights would have prevented Nim from being shuffled around the way he was, to his detriment.
“There’s no gray area – you’ve either got human rights, or you’re property,” he said. “There should be something in between. But people don’t want to hear that; they want to use chimps like property. Maybe I’m a crazy, idealistic hippie, but it doesn’t seem right.”
Ingersoll is pleased to see, though, that humankind seems to be on the right path regarding how they see animals. We’ve come a ways since the ’70s.
“It’s only in the last 30, 40 years you could talk about an animal’s psychology and emotions,” he said. “Now, the emotional state, whether they’re aggressive or shy, these terms we’d only used on ourselves, are being used with animals. That’s a huge leap. Up until not too long ago, we weren’t able to give that even to chimps: ‘Hey, they recognize who and what they are.'”