August 5, 2011
It’s the summer of the chimpanzee, at least at the movies. The documentary Project Nim and the sci-fi flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes offer audiences very different forms of simian entertainment, but moviegoers will walk away from both wondering, “Is it ethical to use chimps in research?”
Project Nim chronicles the life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee who was the focus of one of the most (in)famous ape language studies. In 1973, just days old, Nim was taken from his mom at an ape lab in Oklahoma and brought to New York City. Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University, wanted to see if he could communicate with a chimpanzee through language (Nim was named after linguist Noam Chomsky). Because apes do not have the proper physiology to speak, Terrace decided to teach Nim sign language.
The best way to do this, Terrace thought, was to raise Nim among humans. Terrace gave Nim to one of his former graduate students, a mother in a Brady Bunch-style household. Life there was chaotic, with few rules, and no one in Nim’s human family really knew sign language.
Lacking results, Terrace once again took Nim away from his mother. This time he brought him to an old mansion in the New York suburbs owned by Columbia. Nim lived there with a few college students who were his teachers. Nim also made trips to the university’s campus for language training sessions, which he apparently disliked. One former teacher claims Nim used the sign “dirty,” meaning he needed to use the bathroom (he knew how to use a toilet), to get out of the classroom.
As Nim got older, he became stronger, unpredictable—and violent (his teachers have the scars to prove it; he bit one woman’s face so hard that she had a gaping hole in her cheek for months.) This is normal for a chimpanzee. “Nobody keeps a chimp for more than five years,” Terrace says. Soon Terrace ended the project.
Nim is then returned to the Oklahoma lab. This scene is why you should bring tissues to the theater. Nim gets locked up, forced to live alone in a small cage next to the cages of strange creatures he’d never seen before: other chimps. The lab looks like a primate prison. The workers shock the animals with cattle prods to keep them in line. One former worker describes Nim as a “spoiled child.”
Nim’s life gets worse. He is sold to a medical lab for vaccine testing. Later he moves to a sanctuary—for horses. He lives there in almost total isolation, as the owners don’t know how to care for an ape. Nim appears lonely, depressed. It’s heartbreaking.
Nim eventually gets some chimp companionship. But there’s no real happy ending for him. He died in 2000 at the age of 26, quite young for an animal that can live up to 45 years in the wild and 60 in captivity.
The movie begins in Africa with the capture of a female chimpanzee. In the next scene, she’s solving a puzzle in a lab. (Today, chimps used in research are bred in captivity. It is illegal to bring them in from the wild.) This chimp is part of a medical trial for a gene therapy to treat Alzheimer’s. The treatment goes beyond the expectations of medical researcher Will Rodman (played by James Franco); it enhances the cognition of the chimp, making her super-smart. (Ed. note — Mild spoilers ahead, though its nothing you haven’t already seen in the trailers, so consider yourself warned. You can read on after the note below)
The ape passes down her superior intellect to her son, Caesar (played by Andy Serkis with the help of amazing CGI effects). After an unfortunate incident, Caesar’s mom is killed, and the lab manager halts the project and orders all the chimps to be put down. Rodman saves newborn Caesar and takes him home.
This is where Caesar’s life begins to resemble Nim’s. Rodman treats Caesar like a human and teaches him sign language. Several years later, a bigger, stronger Caesar attacks a neighbor while trying to protect Rodman’s father, and is sent away to a primate “sanctuary” that bears a striking resemblance to the Oklahoma lab where Nim lived, right down to the cattle prods. And Caesar must learn how to interact with other apes.
Eventually, Caesar breaks out, steals some of the medicine that made him smart and returns to give it to his ape comrades. The apes revolt and descend on San Francisco. During an incredible battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s clear that the California Highway Patrol—and perhaps all of humankind—is no match for this army of super-simians. By the end (stick around for the credits), it’s clear how the apes will conquer the rest of the world.
What happened to Nim and Caesar made me incredibly sad and made me think about the ethics of captive ape research. I’m not alone.
(Spoiler-concerned readers: You’re safe to read on from here)
Although the premise of Rise of the Planet of the Apes seems absurd, some scientists worry that genetic engineering is advanced enough to create primates with human-like behavior and self-awareness. The U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences released a report last month suggesting such experiments should be off-limits. The United Kingdom along with many other countries already ban the use of great apes in research. The subject is now being debated in the United States.
In the case of Nim, Terrace concluded years after the project ended that the chimp never really understood sign language; he just learned to mimic his teachers to get rewards. As the movie implies, the lack of results could be blamed on the lack of a proper experimental design in the first place. Other apes—most notably Washoe the chimpanzee, Koko the gorilla and Kanzi the bonobo—have been taught to use sign language. The researchers studying them believe they are truly communicating with these animals via language, but there are still some skeptics, including Terrace, who think otherwise.
I have mixed feelings on chimp studies. The sad irony is that the very reason it seems wrong to study chimps is the same reason why they are attractive study subjects: they are our closest living relatives, and the animals that come closest to being like us.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.