In the '70s, the whimsically named Nim Chimpsky appeared to provide evidence that animals could not only communicate with humans, but could do so through language - through the choosing and arranging of words to ask questions and express their needs.
Research continues on that subject, but the star of the pain-ridden documentary Project Nim is far more interesting as a demonstration of how humans can misunderstand animals, not to mention other humans.
Premiering at 9 p.m. Thursday on HBO, Project Nim uses interviews, archival footage, and reenactments to tell the story of Nim, a chimp born in an Oklahoma institute in 1973 and immediately turned over to a human family for upbringing. Columbia University professor Herb Terrace thought putting the chimp in such an environment might help teach it to communicate with humans - and he chose the family of a former student (and ex-lover), Stephanie LaFarge, to care for Nim.
But LaFarge had no experience with chimps, or significant knowledge of them; in addition, Terrace thought the best course would be to teach Nim sign language, of which LaFarge and her family knew only a little. Her personal life around that time was also "turbulent," as she says in the documentary, nor did her husband and Nim like each other.
Still, she attempted to treat Nim like a human baby, including breast-feeding him, although she says "I wasn't prepared at all for the wild animal in him." At the same time, even as the family was bonding with Nim, Terrace's visits were infrequent; he maintains in the documentary that newborn chimps are raised by their mothers and that he saw Nim as only the "intelligent, personable center of a scientific project."
That became a bigger issue as Nim seemed to learn some sign language, but was also running wilder in the laissez-faire LaFarge home. Nor did LaFarge keep the kind of records of Nim's behavior and progress that would add scientific validity to reports of his progress. Terrace brought in a student (and future lover), Laura Ann Petitto, to teach sign language - and bring more discipline to a situation she calls "utter chaos." Petitto and LaFarge clashed, like parents fighting over custody of a child, and Terrace moved Nim out of the LaFarge home.
This was not the end for Nim, who died in 2000. There would be other care-givers, and other homes, making for a life that is almost Dickensian. Still, Nim was also an animal, and one that grew in strength and violence. Project Nim, directed by the Oscar-winning James Marsh (Man on Wire), never lets us forget Nim's animal side. But it just as strongly lets us see the way occasional compassion for Nim was often outweighed by a callousness and cruelty that began with a chimp snatched from his mother for the sake of a science project.