‘Project Nim’: Dramatic Warning About Monkeying Around With Mother Nature

Latest doc from ‘Man on Wire’s’ James Marsh nimbly serves up a profoundly sad tale of ’70s chimp experiment

Monkey see, monkey not always do.

That’s what happens in “Project Nim,” a fascinating documentary that looks at the sad tale of Nim, a chimp who was the subject of a widely publicized scientific experiment on language acquisition in the mid-1970s.

Nim was taken from his mother at birth in 1973 and given to Stephanie LaFarge, a freethinking, former psychology student, to raise as if he were her own child. LaFarge, a bohemian, Earth Mother type, already had three kids of her own and four stepchildren from a new marriage.)

Handing Nim over to her was Professor Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University behavioral psychologist and self-promoter par excellence. (LaFarge was both a former student and paramour of the professor’s.) Terrace was the mastermind behind Project Nim, a study designed to see whether a chimp could be taught to communicate using sign language and whether it could learn to put single words together to form sentences.

It was to be a test of nature versus nurture. As the movie shows, nature won, but at a haunting cost to Nim.

Director James Marsh, whose 2008 documentary, “Man on a Wire,” won an Oscar, has uncovered a seemingly endless supply of archival footage showing baby Nim romping about with LaFarge and her brood, and later with grad student handlers after Terrace decided the chimp required a more disciplined approach than LaFarge was offering.

The movie also adeptly uses newly shot interviews with many of those who raised, loved and studied Nim, plus several soft-focus re-enactments of pertinent moments for which there was no existing footage or photos.

Initially, the experiment appeared to be a rousing success. Nim learned words rapidly and even mastered using a toilet (though his aim wasn’t great).

But as he grew, gaining in weight and size, Nim began showing his animal side. He became ever more aggressive. He would bite his handlers, badly, and then say in sign language that he was “sorry.” Then he’d do it again a day or two later.

In 1977, Terrace peremptorily shut the experiment down, shipping the now hard-to-control Nim back to the primate facility in Oklahoma where the chimp had been born. Suddenly, Nim, who had known only the company of humans and had been raised in houses, was surrounded by other chimps and penned up in a cage.

For a long time, it only got worse for Nim, including a stint in a medical testing facility during which he was a test animal for vaccines. And then–spoiler ahead–it finally got better. Nim, by now gray and with a life behind him that no chimp would or should expect, died of a heart attack at an animal refuge in 2000. He was 26 years old.

“Project Nim” nimbly serves up a profoundly sad tale that raises as many thought-provoking questions as it answers. The movie also serves as a reminder that attitudes towards sex and drugs were, ahem, a lot looser in the 1970s.

If you’ve ever wanted to see a chimp toke on a joint, and enjoy it, here’s your chance.