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Project Nim

If you thought that Caesar was a sympathetic character ill-served by human scientists in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, wait until you meet Nim Chimpsky. Named in honor of the famous linguist (now better known as a political commentator), Nim was the subject of a 1970s experiment to see if chimpanzees could learn language if they were raised in an environment where language was readily used—a human household. Chimps don’t have the ability to make human-like sounds, so the idea was to teach him sign language.

Directed by James Marsh, who won an Oscar for Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit 1974 high-wire walk performed between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, Project Nim’s sympathies are unabashedly on the side of its animal subject, right from the harrowing opening scene of his mother being shot with a tranquilizer dart so that he can be taken from her. (This scene and a number of others are recreations, a tactic that makes for a smoother viewing experience—fewer information comes from talking heads—but may make you subconsciously doubt the validity of the real archival footage.)

The plentiful interviews with the people who ran these experiments leave little doubt that scientific objectivity and rigor were in short supply. Columbia University researcher Herbert Terrace gives Nim to a former student whom he praises for her empathy (and with whom he later has an affair). Nim goes through several sets of parents, none with any real knowledge of the needs of a potentially intelligent but still bestial ape, and he is the one who suffers most from their confusion. (“It was the ’70s,” is how one participant shrugs it off.) Those of you who grab for the remote when one of Sarah MacLachlan’s animal care commercials come on TV should know that Project Nim doesn’t contain anything quite that unbearable (the opening is about the worst), but even the hardest-hearted viewer will come away with serious thoughts about the ethics and conduct of animal research.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for Project Nim

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