In 1973, Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University professor of psychology, took an enormous gamble: He had the idea that if a chimp were raised like a human child and taught American Sign Language, it would change its mental development enough that the communication walls separating the two species would break down. It would then be possible, he believed, to question chimps about their moods, memories, dreams, even sexual urges. To prove his theory, Terrace needed a human mother who would care for an infant chimpanzee. He found her in former student Stephanie LaFarge, who, with her husband, agreed to raise two-week-old Nim alongside their seven children in an Upper West Side townhouse. LaFarge did indeed treat Nim like any other American boy, right down to breast-feeding him. They even shared a joint. It was the seventies, after all.
“To be fair to Stephanie, there was no textbook on what she could and couldn’t do with a chimpanzee,” says James Marsh, the Oscar-winning director of Man on Wire whose new documentary, Project Nim, chronicles the ape’s epic journey through archival footage, subtle re-creations, and present-day interviews with, among others, LaFarge and a curt and reserved Terrace. “Stephanie did the best she could, and people often respond with, ‘How could she give Nim marijuana when he was a kid?’ Well, it’s no stranger than sticking him in clothes or a classroom. The film offers you a snapshot of New York in the seventies and the values of that time.”
Fourteen months after the experiment began, in February 1975, New York put Nim on its cover (right). The writer, Stuart Baur, watched the diapered Nim interact with his “family” and a battalion of research volunteers, sign from his highchair that he was hungry, and attend his belated first-birthday party. At that time, he was learning language as quickly as a human child of the same age. “Nim,” wrote Baur, “has star quality.” Photographer Harry Benson had a different take. “He was a cute, wee chimp, with a kind little face, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, seeing him in clothes and being turned into a human being,” says Benson, whose father worked at the Glasgow Zoo. “I knew sufficient stuff about primates to know it would end in a mess. They can only go three years before they turn vicious.”
With Nim, it was two years. Despite developing strong bonds with his caretakers, the unpredictable chimp lashed out in increasingly violent ways. Terrace was forced to yank him from LaFarge’s home. When Nim was four, he mauled the face of a female researcher—an eerie precursor to Charla Nash, who was attacked by her friend’s chimp in 2009. Both events clarify what Marsh considers the impossibility of chimps and humans cohabiting: Apes are not nearly intelligent enough to comprehend or modify their far superior strength. “Being just twice as strong as humans would be superhuman,” says Marsh. “When it’s five times or seven times? You don’t want to fuck with them by any means whatsoever.”
If the experiment with Nim had succeeded, Terrace was intending to breed two signing chimps to see if they would teach their offspring to sign. But as the film documents, the outcome for Nim was bleak. Terrace eventually abandoned the project, and deposited the chimp in a primate-research center in Oklahoma. From there, for over twenty years, Nim was shuffled among research and protected-wildlife facilities; at one point he’s saved from euthanasia by a shambolic Dead Head animal-rights activist (who nearly steals the film).
Nim began his life with a huge family of devoted caretakers, but for most of the rest of it he was isolated and lonely. He could sign 120 words, but could barely communicate with his own species. For Nim, who died of a heart attack at a relatively young 26, there was no happy ending.