Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human

By ELIZABETH HESS

Elizabeth Hess’s book is a polemical animal biography in the tradition of Black Beauty. Nim Chimpsky — his very name a dig at the controversial linguist who held that language belongs solely to humans — was among the first and most talented of chimpanzees to learn sign language. In the end, the results of “Project Nim” proved inconclusive, and Nim was “retired” from language research, disappearing into a cruel labyrinth of breeding programs and research facilities. Chimps in such conditions frequently died in medical trials; for survivors, euthanasia was not unusual. But here was a “lab animal” who could help cook dinner and wash up afterward. And most poignantly, he could talk. Nim’s incarceration devastated him, and Hess charts his transformation from a tumbling toddler into an angry, dangerous adult. Throughout it all, Nim continued to sign, forever seeking the understanding of his mostly uncomprehending handlers. Near the end of his life, when Nim viciously bit another chimpanzee, his keeper squirted a dollop of antibacterial ointment into Nim’s hand and told him to apply it to the wound; Nim ambled over and treated his companion with expert care. As historian Erica Fudge points out, the danger of teaching animals to speak is that we might not want to hear what they have to tell.