Are apes able to learn to communicate using language? is there an ethical way for us to investigate this question?
Project Nim is a documentary that asks these questions by focussing on a linguistics experiment carried out at Colombia University during the 1970s. Nim was taken from his mother at the age of two weeks (his mother had had several earlier offspring taken from her while she had lived in this research centre). Nim was adopted by a human family and brought up as a human child. The film showed that this time in Nim's life involved a lot of playful interaction as well as indignity. However, the University decided Nim wasn't been educated rigorously enough so he was taken into the research facility and given regular lessons with a series of teachers. Eventually the project was abandoned entirely and Nim was returned to the research centre where he had been born. He had become used to being in the company of humans and took time to get used to being with chimpanzees. Luckily at the centre, Bob, one of the research students took a personal interest in Nim and made sure he got trips out and talked to him (using the sign language he had learned while being part of the family and education based project). Later the research facility found itself in financial difficulties and sold some of its chimpanzees to a medical reasearch facility (this of course is an entirely different sort of research than is linguistic and social research). Bob alerted the press and an animal welfare charity bought Nim to save him from a future of medical research but then kept him in isolation (in a large cage with lots of toys) in the middle of a centre devoted to looking after horses, domkeys, llamas and elephants and without any experts around who knew anything about chimps. Bob complained about this and was banned from going to the charity. Finally the charity got a new director who worked with Bob to acquire more chimps (from the medical research centre which by then had been closed down) and arranging time for Bob to see Nim regularly. Nim died of a heart attack at the age of 26.
The people involved in Nim's life (with the exception of Bob and the lawyer who helped him) never seemed to consider Nim's rights as a chimpanzee, seemed to see him either as a cute addition to the family or an interesting scientific subject. The Project Nim director at one point says of Nim's adoptive mother 'she was the best possible mother for Nim' NO! Nim's own real mother was his best mother! In the discussions about rescuing Nim from medical research, he was to be rescued because he was special and could communicate with humans and had been brought up human. it was clear that no-one considered it equally wrong that the other chimps were used for medical research.
I found this an incredibly difficult film to watch, though there are some light moments, such as when Nim cuddles a cat and when he's playing with Bob or with his adoptive family. But even then it just feels so entirely wrong that this chimpanzee has been deprived of his natural family and any chance of a natural life, for the sake of research, no matter how interesting that research. This is a vital film to watch if you're at all interested in animal rights and ethics.
I was at the press screening of this film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Public screenings are:
17.30, 18 June in Cameo 1; 18.00, 20 June, George Square Theatre. You can book your tickets on the Edinburgh International Film Festival website here.
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