Project Nim


Written by Priscilla Eyles
07 Sunday 07th August 2011

Project Nim is James Marsh’s fascinating follow-up to 2008’s Man On Wire. The documentary investigates Herbert Terrace’s 1973 animal language acquisition project teaching the chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, American Sign Language and rearing him as if he were a human. When Terrace dismisses the project Nim gets abandoned, living in inhumane conditions and prompting a battle for his rights as an intelligent animal. Don’t Panic talks to Bob Ingersoll, one of Nim’s trainers and key campaigners in the film.

Bob with Nim

How did you first come to work with Nim?

In 1974 I heard about Washoe [the previous experiment lead by Allen and Beatrix Gardner teaching a chimp, Washoe, sign language] and then shortly after that I had a freak encounter with Roger Fouts [a student of the Gardner’s] at Oklahoma University. First day of class he comes in and I got to work with Washoe and all the chimps, Nim had left before I came to IPS [Institute of Primate Studies], so I had two and a half years of experience with chimps. Then Nim came back so it was just a stroke of luck that I happened to be the person with a lot of experience and I was able to say, ‘I’ll be Nim’s buddy’.  

What were your feelings about Terrace’s project when you started?

I didn’t have a lot of insider knowledge, but I read the New Yorker article in 1975 which said we’re going to know what the chimps are thinking. And I thought, well, that’s a lofty goal, we don’t know what other humans are thinking! At that point I didn’t want to be publicly critical because I was still a student, but I had my doubts because I already knew that chimps can only know certain things, such as naming an object or nouns and verbs.

The Gardners criticised Terrace’s approach to training, what were your thoughts?

The criticisms that the Gardners have are absolutely legitimate. Washoe was immersed more in sign language and they had better methodology. I think Herb thinks that he was a good scientist but the reality is if you were to compare the Gardners’ and Herb’s methodology it was completely more developed. I think Herb totally ignored the Gardners’ work because he still makes it appears as though Nim was the first sign language chimpanzee, and the reality is that by the time he got Nim they [the Gardners] were doing some extraordinary stuff with a chimpanzee named Mosha and then the chimpanzees Dar and Tatu. In his arrogant way Herb thought that he didn’t need to access any of that stuff because in that academic world there’s lots of competitiveness. I know there was animosity between them. And that’s very unfortunate because the animals get caught in the middle and used as pawns in this really terrible game and it’s their lives at stake, and for us to say on one hand ‘there just like us and that they deserve all this stuff’ and on the other keep them in cages and do silly little studies with them.  Herb’s project had a significant deficiency in planning, there was no planning, and that should have all been in place before they actually got the animal.

What do you think were Nim’s most humanistic traits?

He was sociable, he liked to have fun. He was fun to be with, open and not shy at all, other chimps like let’s say my friend Kelly were much more shy and reserved and harder to get to know. But that is exactly what you find in humans many differences between us. 

What do you think of critics like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker who say that animals can never really acquire true language, a view that Terrace eventually supported?

I don’t believe those guys  and I think that’s a pretty damn arrogant way to approach it. Define what language is and then make it work across the board for every individual group of humans. You’re going to find one group that doesn’t fit in, does that mean they’re not humans? I think that naming objects, as chimpanzees can do, is the super-structure. I don’t think you necessarily have to have syntax and grammar [as Chomsky and Pinker suggest you need] in order to have the building blocks of language. I know that there are certain components you have to have before you have language and I would say chimpanzees can do the kind of things that no other animals except us and other primates can do, so it seems to me those people are trying to make humans the pinnacle. I also know chimps in the way that those people that talk about chimps, they never met chimps I don’t know if Pinker’s ever met chimps but I bet he hasn’t. I know  Chomsky hasn’t because I invited him to meet Nim  and he didn’t. It annoys me because Nim’s my friend.

What projects are you involved in at the moment?

I still work with chimps and consult with sanctuaries and other facilities, I now work with monkeys rescuing them from the pet trade and research. I am the President of Mindy's Memory Primate Sanctuary ( in Oklahoma, under the direction of Linda Barcklay. Monkeys are the least served of all the non-human primates in terms of sanctuaries so that is why I found myself wanting to help them and Linda with her incredible work.  

Project Nim is out on general release August 12

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