Nim Chimpsky, Thrown Away

This is so damn sad. A short Salon interview about a book about the fate of Nim Chimpsky, a chimp who was raised as a human child, until the research money ran out, at which point they realized they had no idea what to do with him. In his final home, a chimp sanctuary in Texas…

One graduate student described the response that all the [research] chimps had [upon being reintroduced to other chimps] as a nervous breakdown. Nim’s brother [and the subject of another study] Ally was so terrified and upset that he suffered a kind of paralysis for a while. They often pull out all their hair; they refuse to eat; some get beaten up by other chimps because they don’t know how to respond to them.

The former graduate students in New York believe that Nim had no idea he was a chimpanzee. One of them suggested to me that Nim might have thought he was going to grow up, lose all his facial and body hair and eventually look like the people who were around him. That would be a reasonable supposition. Throughout his life, Nim preferred to be with humans.

There was a children’s book all about Nim while he was in New York, basically a photo book, and Nim kept his one copy of this book safe, even though chimps tend to wreck everything. He would bring it down and show the other chimps, then bring it back to his bunk and keep it under his sleeping area so that no one could destroy it. He would just look at pictures of his New York City family, and himself, over and over again.

That’s the kind of story that just makes you angry at people.

Of course we have a hard enough time getting human beings to treat each other with respect, care, and dignity. It’s not too surprising we can’t be trusted to treat animals that way. Even when the whole point of the experiment was to find how similar an animal could be to a human being…

Come to think of it, it’s quite possible the people who conceived of the experiment were behaviorists (the main foes of Noam Chomsky for a long time), and barely could bring themselves to believe humans actually have thoughts and feelings, much less animals.