Watching for signs
‘Project Nim’ and ‘Rise of the Planet of Apes’ raise awareness of our closest relative
By Jana J. Monji 07/14/2011
If animals could talk, would we listen?
This summer, two movies — one based on history, the other science fiction inspired by research — urge us to pay more attention to one of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee.
In the first film, “Project Nim,” opening Friday at Laemmle Playhouse 7 theaters in Pasadena, director James Marsh bases his story on Elizabeth Hess’ 2008 book “Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.”
The second film, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which opens Aug. 5 nationwide, is a reboot of the 1970s films and TV series. At a July 7 panel discussion following a screening of segments of the film at Caltech — which featured Clare Richardson of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and Caltech Professor of Philosophy Steven R. Quartz — director Rupert Wyatt said “Project Nim” was used as a reference for his project.
In the “Planet of the Apes” series (five movies, a half-season TV series), a handful of chimps believe humans are intelligent. Before that reversal occurs, though, primates must revolt and take over society, which is what happens in “Rise.” Wyatt said his approach was to “tell the story of the oppressed” by following an orphaned chimp with enhanced intelligence that had been raised in a research scientist’s home.
In the real-life case of Nim, Professor Herbert Terrace, a behavioral psychologist at Columbia University who appears in the documentary, wanted to see if a male chimp could communicate using American Sign Language if raised as a human child.
When Nim became too aggressive, Terrace, declaring the study a success, sent Nim to the Oklahoma University Institute for Primate Studies, where he was caged. There Nim made friends, notably grad student Bob Ingersoll, who also appears in the film.
In 1982, Nim was sold to a medical research lab at NYU, but public outcry got him into a sanct-uary in Texas, where he died in 2000. By then, Terrace had renoun-ced his original findings and claimed that Nim was only a skilled mimic.
Marsh’s pensive documentary sides with Hess and Ingersoll, who are sympathetic to Nim. Yet, the film doesn’t bolster its argument with other living examples.
Terrace was actually replicating research done by Allen and Beatrix Gardner at the University of Nevada, which was started in 1967 — one year before Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall would star in the first “Planet of the Apes” film.
Their grad student, Roger Fouts, would take their most famous chimp, Washoe, first to the University of Oklahoma and later to Central Washington University, where Washoe and her family grouping would become part of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI). Fouts recorded his story in his book “Next of Kin.”
Institute Director Mary Lee Jensvold, who hadn’t yet seen either movie, refuted Terrace’s research claims in an email interview. “Despite his initial intent, Terrace failed to replicate the Gardner's rich cross-fostering environment. Instead, a parade of caregivers moved through Nim's life as he moved from place to place. In studies of human children, we know this type of treatment adversely affects attachment and social relationships, which are manifested in communication — the very behavior that Terrace was studying,” Jensvold wrote.
Washoe was at the University of Oklahoma when Nim was born in 1973 and when he was returned in 1977. Ingersoll knew both Nim and Washoe.
The “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” storyline is actually closer to another UO refugee’s story: Booee, the only signing chimp among the 45 kept at the Wildlife Waystation on Little Tujunga Canyon Road in the Angeles National Forest and one of several rescued from medical research.
Quartz, whose research uses neuroscience, responded to the question, “Have chimps displayed abstract thought?” by saying only humans have the ability to envision the future and engage in “social reciprocity” by using a sort of “mental bookkeeping.”
But both Jensvold and Ingersoll disagreed when contacted later.
At CHCI, a chimp named Tatu signs about upcoming annual events that she seems to anticipate. “For example at Halloween she begins to ask about Bird Meat, which is served at Thanksgiving, the next holiday,” Jensvold wrote.
“Interesting that he chose these two things as benchmarks for abstract thought — as if these are two things that define it,” wrote Jensvold, who recently visited Booee. “Certainly they are not agreed upon in the scientific community.”
There are few elderly chimps who still use ASL to “talk” to humans, but who is listening?
Perhaps “Project Nim” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” will have audi-ences re-thinking how we treat our next of kin.