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Cruelty on the Couch


Although Armando carries David's photo in his wallet and insists, "I'm still in love with him, no matter what," the feeling is not mutual. David has a signed order of protection against his ex-boyfriend, forbidding Armando from coming near him or Wolfie again. He has changed the locks on the apartment they briefly shared. Armando admits only to hitting the dog in the face that day and tying his front legs together with rubber bands. He argues vehemently that the veterinarians who examined the dog exaggerated his condition. From his point of view, the whole incident seems trivial in comparison with the violence he has known all his life.

Dr. LaFarge has built her career exploring the cutting edge of research and therapy. It began with her Ph.D. project in 1973, an unconventional and highly experimental language-acquisition study conducted at Columbia University under the auspices of Professor Herbert Terrace, a protégé of B. F. Skinner. She was selected by Terrace (her undergraduate mentor) to raise a newborn chimpanzee in the bosom of her own family in New York City -- a family that, at the time, included seven children, three from her first marriage, to renowned artist-puppeteer Ralph Lee, and the four children of her second husband, the late WER LaFarge, a playwright and poet. The idea behind the experiment was, to put it simply, to convince the animal that he was human. "There was a theoretical contest going on between B. F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky," LaFarge explains. "If Skinner was right, then every animal with intelligence of a certain level could learn to talk, or use language. If Chomsky was right, then only human beings had the language gene for deep structure, for underlying grammatical word order."

LaFarge brought a three-day-old chimp, Nim Chimsky, home to live in the family brownstone on West 78th Street. Nim quickly became a celebrity on the Upper West Side, where he was closely watched by the scientific community and the media as he thrived in his human family. The chimp even made it onto the cover of New York on February 24, 1975, with an accompanying article that described this experiment as "revolutionary." At one point, ABC Television approached the LaFarges about doing a Brady Bunch-plus-chimp pilot based on the family. But nothing ever came of it, possibly because the reality of having a chimpanzee in the home was not sufficiently heartwarming for prime time. Eventually, several books were written about Nim and the meaning of this four-year experiment.

"Whatever the barrier, whether it's between the therapist and the substance abuser, between the living and the dying, or one species and another -- I'm drawn to that."

Jenny Lee, one of LaFarge's daughters, was 14 when Nim arrived. "It was like getting a new baby brother -- but better! I fell in love with Nim," she said in a brief interview from her office at the Bronx Zoo, where she recently designed the highly acclaimed Congo Gorilla Forest. But raising Nim was infinitely more complicated than raising a human child. "Baby chimps cling to their mothers for their first year, never letting go," LaFarge explains. "I had this chimp physically attached to my body, whatever I did, wherever I went, 24 hours a day." Nim was affixed to her whether she was buying groceries -- or making love with her husband. Not surprisingly, there were problems. "Nim's instinctual feeling toward my stepfather was aggressive," remembers Lee. "His entrance into the family widened a crack that was already splitting in their marriage." LaFarge took the chimp's side, and credits him with helping her end an unsuccessful marriage.

Nim lived with the family for two years. He readily learned sign language, became an active participant in the LaFarge household, and eventually was moved to a mansion in Riverdale, courtesy of Columbia University. Then, suddenly, the grants weren't renewed. Nim was scheduled to be transferred to a laboratory for the next medical experiment down the line. Thankfully, LaFarge got him accepted by the Black Beauty Ranch, a sanctuary in Texas founded by animal-rights activist Cleveland Amory. Nim remains there today.

The intervention clients are asked to take a hard look at what triggered their violence against animals. Not surprisingly, the therapist soon focuses on the clients' personal histories. "I've learned that I need to address the position of the pet in the family," LaFarge explains. "That's where we are going to start."

Armando can rattle off dark stories that begin with his childhood. He paints a picture of an adolescence rife with physical abuse, family squabbles, and neglect. He claims to have been unwanted because his biological father was white (his mother is Hispanic), and put in foster care in Boston when he was three days old. For years, he was shuttled back and forth between his foster mother and his biological mother, who, he says, eventually kicked him out altogether.

The other big problem was his sexuality. Armando claims he was raped by a male friend of the family when the man discovered Armando was gay. He decided to end his life. "I tried to overdose. Then I tried to cut my wrists, but I didn't cut deep enough," he says in a monotone. Some time later, Armando says, "I called my mother up and told her, 'I'm gay, I'm fruity,' but she didn't believe me." So he came out of the closet on the Ricki Lake show. His mother happened to be watching. "Then she believed me," he adds. The two are now estranged.

Perhaps most disturbing, Armando describes watching his 16-year-old girlfriend hemorrhage to death in a Boston hospital after giving birth to their daughter. "She started bleeding," he says. "A nurse tried to stop it. I was just holding her hand and she was shaking and shaking. Then the nurse took the baby and left the room. I was screaming because her hand just got colder and colder. She was calling out my name." Today, their daughter is 3 years old. According to Armando, she lives with his grandmother -- his deceased father's mother.

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