(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: PROJECT NIM is a documentary about a scientific project that was intended to show how a chimpanzee raised has a human would become a communicating near-human. Instead the story turns decidedly Dickensian. It is the sad story of an animal whose fate is left in the hands of people--some well-meaning, some not so much--who are error-prone, unprepared for dealing with a chimpanzee, and often uncaring. It is also the story of the price that the chimpanzee pays. Nim Chimpsky was mishandled most of his life. Documentary footage and interviews recreate the life of Nim who was chosen to be a training subject in Columbia University's animal language acquisition program. It is a moving lament for the treatment of animals at the hands of humans. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Much of what this film is about is how human society treats mature and aging chimpanzees and inconvenient animals in general. When you see a cute chimpanzee in a film or on TV, you should be aware that that is probably a very young animal. Young chimps are cooperative, inquisitive, and cute. As chimps grow up, nature takes over much of their temperament. They become independent, subject to rages, often violent for reasons that will not necessarily be evident to humans. And when they become angry they will be dangerous. There is a lot of muscle in a mature chimpanzee--enough to make one six times as strong as a man. A chimp will live to be as old as fifty, but their cuteness deserts them by about age ten. Then they can be put in a sanctuary that may or may not work out and may or may not have the animal's best interests at heart. All too frequently mature chimpanzees are used for medical research, frequently under terrible conditions.

Project Washoe had previously been a reasonably successful attempt to teach the female chimpanzee Washoe to use sign language and to communicate with humans. The University of Nevada sponsored it. In an attempt to repeat the attempt and carry it further a human family adopted a very young baby chimpanzee intending to raise it as a member of the family. Significantly they chose a male, who was more likely to turn aggressive than a female. It was the first of many bad calculations for which the chimp, named Nim Chimpsky, would pay the price later in his life. We first see Nim in the arms of his mother unaware that these are their last moments together. The mother knows because six of Nim's previous siblings had been taken away. Nim was taken to a project that was almost completely unprepared for a relationship with a chimp.

We see from footage taken to document the project how Nim was raised. Cute gives way to larger, stronger, and often violent. Nim does learn language at first and seems intelligent, but at the same time unmanageable. Unlike a dog that looks for his place in a pecking order and then resigns himself to staying at that level, chimps are more confrontational trying to raise higher in the ladder. Nim unexpectedly attacks people, sometimes doing serious injury. Afterward Nim would frequently appear contrite. He would sign that he was sorry, but perhaps he interpreted the sign simply that this was merely the token of payment for his action. When Nim actually rips open the side of the face of one of the people caring for him the language experiment was terminated. The film then follows Nim's fate. He is repeatedly handed off to shelters, often dismal and inhumane. Eventually he is sold for medical research under barbaric conditions only to be rescued by Cleveland Amory's sanctuary for equine animals. He is the only chimpanzee and this proves to be just another lifestyle that does not fit him.

Throughout the film there are interviews with the people cared for him or experimented with him, piecing together the story of Nim's life. It was a life that was intended to advance science and instead just turned an animal's life into a living nightmare. This is a film that very rightly questions the value of animal research but even more the values of the animal researchers. I rate PROJECT NIM a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper