Synopses & Reviews
Now Elizabeth Hess’s unforgettable biography is the inspiration for Project Nim, a riveting new documentary directed by James Marsh and produced by Simon Chinn, the Oscar-winning team known for Man on Wire. Hess, a consultant on the film, says, “Getting a call from James Marsh and Simon Chinn is an author’s dream. Project Nim is nothing short of amazing.”
Could an adorable chimpanzee raised from infancy by a human family bridge the gap between species—and change the way we think about the boundaries between the animal and human worlds? Here is the strange and moving account of an experiment intended to answer just those questions, and the astonishing biography of the chimp who was chosen to see it through.
Dubbed Project Nim, the experiment was the brainchild of Herbert S. Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University. His goal was to teach a chimpanzee American Sign Language in order to refute Noam Chomsky’s assertion that language is an exclusively human trait. Nim Chimpsky, the baby chimp at the center of this ambitious, potentially groundbreaking study, was “adopted” by one of Dr. Terrace’s graduate students and brought home to live with her and her large family in their elegant brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
At first Nim’s progress in learning ASL and adapting to his new environment exceeded all expectations. His charm, mischievous sense of humor, and keen, sometimes shrewdly manipulative understanding of human nature endeared him to everyone he met, and even led to guest appearances on Sesame Street, where he was meant to model good behavior for toddlers. But no one had thought through the long-term consequences of raising a chimp in the human world, and when funding for the study ran out, Nim’s problems began.
Over the next two decades, exiled from the people he loved, Nim was rotated in and out of various facilities. It would be a long time before this chimp who had been brought up to identify with his human caretakers had another opportunity to blow out the candles on a cake celebrating his birthday. No matter where he was sent, however, Nim’s hard-earned ability to converse with humans would prove to be his salvation, protecting him from the fate of many of his peers.
Drawing on interviews with the people who lived with Nim, diapered him, dressed him, taught him, and loved him, Elizabeth Hess weaves an unforgettable tale of an extraordinary and charismatic creature. His story will move and entertain at the same time that it challenges us to ask what it means to be human, and what we owe to the animals who so enrich our lives.
About the Author
Elizabeth Hess is a journalist who continues to write about animals. Her articles have appeared in the Village Voice, New York magazine, the New York Observer, the London Telegraph, the Bark, Art in America, Art News, Artforum and many other publications. She is the winner of a Genesis Award (1998) for an investigative article on New York City’s animal control program, which appeared in New York magazine. Along with Nim Chimpsky, her books on animals include Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter. Hess is currently writing a social history of the American Pit Bull Terrier.
A Q&A with author Elizabeth Hess
Q:What was writing this book like? What about the process most surprised or illuminated you?
I had no idea how difficult it would be to write a biography of an animal! There are so few records kept on captive animals that pinning down dates of birth, transfers of ownership, health records anything that should have been easy was needlessly difficult. I also had to track down all the people who actually knew Nim and get their stories. And, needless to say, many of their stories conflicted so I had to sift through all the information on Nim and piece together his reality. I often felt like I was putting together pieces of a complicated puzzle. We project all kinds of things onto animals, which makes knowing them much more difficult. Nim's people all loved him, but they had all lost track of him and their memories had faded into their feelings of tremendous guilt over having lost contact with him.
Q: Can you name the first book you read that inspired you in some special way? Why?
Black Beauty. It is still one of the most powerful books about the subject of humane treatment of animals. I remember reading it as a child and I read it to my daughter over and over. Also, Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. It's a primer on animal rights that virtually started a movement in this country. And—a real favorite is Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. An intense and riveting novel about people, animals and survival.
Q: Can you tell us about the book you are working on now? And when you finish writing your answers to this Q&A, what will you do next?
I'm working on a book about pit bulls. The inspiration is a little dog named Lucy, an 8 year old pit bull, currently sleeping under my desk. A rescuer found her one year ago wandering the streets of Albany, sick and homeless. Now she will be with me for the rest of her life. (She joined my two other dogs a golden retriever and a husky mix who can't remember life without her.) In the year I've lived with Lucy, I've become fascinated by American Pit Bull Terriers. As everyone who lives with one knows, pit bulls are highly intelligent, extremely athletic, courageous, loving, and loyal. What else does one need in a dog? But it's important to keep them away from the Michael Vicks of the world... I'm currently trying to find out how these dogs because the scapegoats for everything violent everything that is wrong in our hardly ideal lives.
What will I do now? Take the dogs for a good long walk. I do my best writing walking through a field behind my house as the dogs sniff for rabbits, birds, and sent of deer passing through.