Laura-Ann Petitto with Nim in a red snuggly.
Imagine if we could "free" a chimpanzee’s mind through a communicative vehicle. This is the goal that Columbia university researchers set out to achieve in the mid-1970’s. How? By raising a 2-week-old chimp like a human child, by a human mother, in a house of seven children. Because chimpanzees lack the vocal apparatus to speak, the communicative vehicle was American Sign Language—even though no one in the large family knew sign language. The project was the brain child of behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace, and the human mother to raise the chimp was one of his graduate students, Stephanie LaFarge. The two back-handedly named the chimp Nim, after Noam Chomsky, the linguist who insisted that language is exclusively a human trait.
The story of Nim is the subject of ’s, who won the 2009 Best Documentary Academy Award for Man on Wire, newest documentary. In theatres now, Project Nim has received raving reviews, won the best directing award for world documentary at Sundance, and been heralded already as a likely candidate for an Academy Award. But the story told within the film is a less happy one. LaFarge was not prepared for the “wild animal in Nim;’ and neither was her husband, who quickly realized the chimp’s hard-wired nature to compete with other males. As tension began to arise between Terrace and LaFarge, who had once been lovers, and because Terrace claimed LaFarge’s house lacked order and methodology, Nim was handed off to Laura-Ann Petitto, an attractive 18-year-old student who was highly motivated and organized.
What happens next is a shocking and amazing story that involves both tragedy and joy—much as a human life does. The results of this experiment and film reveal as much about human behavior as they do about chimp behavior. Alongside heart-warming and tear-jerking moments of love and long-lasting chimp-human relationships, the film exposes arrogant and self-serving actions that are quite unsettling. At the heart of this film is the question of why humans feel so compelled to bring the “human” out of animals. Is the means of communication the missing link between humans and animals or is there simply not more going on in the minds of animals to be communicated? Was it wrong to bring an animal out of its natural habitat or is it important to test the scientific question that this experiment asked? And ultimately, was the experiment a failure or success?
Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, science director, National Science Foundation's Science of Learning Center; professor of Psychology at Gallaudet University and Georgetown University. At eighteen years old, she became primary teacher and project coordinator of Project Nim Chimpsky, at Columbia University; she lived with the chimp as his primary surrogate mother.