Planet of the Project Nim Ape

I am oddly struck by the observation that two films currently showing in theaters, Rise of Planet of the Apes (2011), a fictional futuristic sci-fi film, and Project Nim (2011), a documentary about a scientific experiment carried out in the 1970s that used a chimpanzee as a subject, both express a similar sentiment, namely that the Apes portrayed appear to have, in general, a higher standard of ethical conduct than many of the humans. Few of the humans in either film come across looking very good. Some of the humans in Rise of Planet of the Apes take pleasure in hurting or killing the apes, while apes on several occasions decline an opportunity to kill humans, even though the humans, by Hollywood film standards, probably deserve it. The most ethical behavior seen in Project Nim, was, arguably, exhibited by the chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky.i

My intent in this posting is to elaborate on some ideas regarding ethical relationships between humans and non-human apes, in particular chimpanzees. Before launching into this topic let me first make a personal bias explicit since I am not a disinterested party regarding these issues. I am now retired, but my entire career was spent carrying out scientific research using non-human primates as subjects, including infant chimpanzees.ii   However, knowing that incidental fact is unlikely to allow you to predict in advance what my positions are going to be regarding these issues.

I will begin by discussing some very broad ethical issues pertaining to relationships between humans and other animals. As this essay proceeds, I will gradually narrow my focus, honing in on some specific ethical issues raised in the documentary film, Project Nim.

Under what conditions is it morally justified for humans to use other species of animals for any purpose? Some common human uses of animals are for food, clothing, testing of new drugs and consumer products, scientific studies (including basic, medical, and military research), sport (such as dog and horse racing, rodeos, hunting and fishing), pets, as workers (guard dogs, pack mules, horse drawn carriages), entertainment (circuses, zoos, animal acts playing in places like Las Vegas, national parks), and education (dissections in classrooms, continuing education courses in which doctors learn new procedures by practicing on animals). Some consider all of these kinds of uses to be appropriate, others none, and many accept some uses but not others (e.g. a vegetarian who owns a pet).

Arguments that some or all of these uses are unethical are frequently subsumed under the phrase animal rights, which is an extension of the concept of human rightsiii    to other species.iv    In general, I do not find arguments based on the concept of animal rights to be particularly compelling. Assertions about human rights are often coupled with notions of human responsibilities. For example, an individual human’s freedom to move about freely without being confined is coupled with a responsibility to not commit certain crimes. There are many very thorny practical problems associated with trying to figure out what, if any, responsibilities should be transferred to animals when some right, roughly analogous to a human right, is extended to them. For example, is the chimpanzee who bit off the face of a womanv    responsible for its actions? Is a chimpanzee who kills another chimp guilty of homicide?vi    I realize that these kinds of examples are beside the point of the main focus of the animal rights movement, which is that humans should, as much as possible, leave animals alone to live in their natural habitats. In fact I agree with that sentiment. However, arguments about these kinds of issues seem to me to become more muddled than clarified when they are framed by concepts having to do with animal rights. Having said that, my own position regarding whether or not great ape species such as chimpanzees should be used as subjects in scientific experiments has changed over the past couple decades, influenced in part by arguments made by individuals within the animal rights movement, and also by empirical evidence from studies of great apes. The accumulating scientific evidence demonstrating the extent to which great ape species such as chimpanzees appear capable of empathy, compassion, and suffering, as well as the demonstrations of their complex cognitive abilities,vii   has pushed my own thinking, more and more, towards an agreement with the view that it is not appropriate to use these species in any types of invasive scientific studies.viii

Let me turn next to a concept about ethical relationships between humans and animals that is related to animal rights, but distinct from it, animal welfare. The basic framework of an animal welfare ethical system asserts that whenever humans use animals for any purpose, those humans are responsible for the welfare of the animals being used. This framework provides the guiding principles I used throughout my own career when conducting research on animals. Admittedly, an animal welfare framework tells us nothing about whether the particular use the animals are being put to is justified. I will address that issue in a later section. For now, lets just stipulate for the purpose of this discussion that it has been agreed upon that some particular use of animals is allowable. What then are the ethical responsibilities of the humans engaged in using animals in that matter?

I would argue that the most fundamental animal welfare principle is that humans who use an animal for any purpose need to show respect for the animal that is being used. The origins of the idea that humans should show respect for the animals they use for food and clothing can be found in many hunter-gatherer cultures.ix    For example many of these cultures have rituals that involve thanking an animal that has been killed and eaten for food or whose hide has been used to make clothing.

The importance of showing respect for animals that are being used is also prevalent in family farm cultures. My own set of ethics about how one should treat animals was heavily influenced by having been raised on a family farm in the 1950’s and 60’s. On the farm it was always understood that when a livestock animal was born, it was born for a specific purpose. Perhaps to provide milk, eggs, or wool that could be harvested, to serve as a work animal, such as sheep herding dogs and horses used to roundup cows, or to eventually be slaughtered for food. The welfare of the animal being kept for that purpose was the responsibility of the farmer raising it, and that responsibility included providing for basic needs such as food, water, and shelter. However, underlying these specific duties was a more fundamental principle of always showing respect for the animal.

A similar ethic is adopted by most scientists who carry out research using animals. A research animal is considered to have been born for the purpose of being in a scientific study. It is the ethical responsibility of the scientist carrying out that study to provide for that animal’s welfare, and that includes specific imperatives such as providing adequate food, water, opportunity for exercise, social interactions if a social animal species, minimization of pain and suffering. It is possible to enumerate a long list of these duties appropriate to the particular species of animal being used, but once again, all of these specific items are subsumed under the more general principle that the scientist takes on the responsibility of making sure the animal is treated with respect by everyone involved with the research.

Sadly, while watching the documentary Project Nim, I failed to see much indication that any of the humans involved in this scientific project took proper responsibility for the welfare of the Chimpanzee Nim. The main fault lies with Herb Terrace, the Columbia University professor who, as the head of the project, bore ultimate responsibility for ensuring the integrity (both ethical and scientific) of the entire study. Listening to him being interviewed, there was no indication he had given much, if any, thought about the welfare of Nim during this study, or about what should happen to Nim when the study was over. Watching the scenes play out in the documentary made it abundantly clear that Nim, as well as the family where Nim was initially placed, and also college students working on the project, were all potentially put in harm’s way. There does not appear to have been any attempt to provide Nim’s caretakers with information about what to expect in terms of the natural behaviors of a chimpanzee or training in proper, and safe, methods for handling a chimpanzee. The scientific integrity of the experimental design was also potentially compromised by this lack of planning and inattention to detail. The caretakers, who were expected to try to train Nim to use sign language and document his abilities to do so, were not themselves proficient in sign language and were not given any training about the scientific protocols that were supposed to be followed. All and all, the sloppy way in which this study was carried out reflects the polar opposite to the animal welfare fundamental principle of showing respect for a research animal. As a former animal researcher, watching this documentary made me cringe, made me embarrassed, made me angry.x

Although the ultimate responsibility for these failures lies with Herb Terrace, the scientist in charge, there was plenty of lack of respect to go around. Stephanie LaFarge, the woman in whose home Nim was initially placed, as well as some of the students who worked on the project later, stated openly during interviews that they had not made any efforts to learn about natural chimp behavior.

One consequence of this willful ignorance was the number of bite injuries received by humans working with Nim. The students who had worked on Project Nim discussed this fact in the documentary as though it was an inevitable part of working with a chimpanzee that was growing older and stronger. One of the interviews with Herb Terrace demonstrates that he also accepted the (mistaken) notion that increasing numbers of injuries would have been inevitable had the project continued longer than it did. He makes this observation in a self-serving way as a justification for having returned Nim back to the Primate Facility at the University of Oklahoma when the project was terminated. Herb Terrace had been heavily criticized for this action because Nim, who had been raised by humans, appeared to have been highly traumatized by being forced to now live in a cage with other chimps. Herb Terrace justifies having done so on the basis that “No one keeps a baby chimp for more than 5 years.”

The documentary film makers do not do a very good job of challenging this fallacious idea and this leads to one of the aspects of the film that I think must have been confusing to many viewers. In the second half of the film, while Nim is living at the Primate Research Facility at the University of Oklahoma, he is shown being taken for walks in the countryside by two students named Bob and Alyce. He is now much bigger and stronger than when he was involved in Project Nim, but there is no concern expressed about risks of bites. The obvious explanation, never addressed in the film, is that once Nim is returned to the Primate Research Facility at University of Oklahoma, he is being cared for by individuals who understand Chimpanzee behavior, and who have been trained in proper methods for interacting with Chimpanzees safely. In other words, Nim is now in the care of competent, professional individuals who show respect for Nim.

Somewhat ironically, some of the worst examples of lack of respect for Nim’s welfare took place later in Nim’s life after he had been “rescued” from a pharmaceutical animal testing laboratory managed by NYU and taken to live in an animal rescue center operated by The Fund for Animals, a group run by animal rights activist Cleveland Amory. Most likely, Cleveland Amory and the other people associated with this animal rescue center had good intentions, but what happened to Nim during his stay at this facility provides strong support for the adage, “The road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions”. At least four very bad things happened while Nim lived at this facility. The sanctuary a) kept Nim, a chimpanzee, which is a highly social species, in solitary confinement for many years, b) allowed Nim to kill at least one dog that was being kept as a pet at the facility, c) put both Nim and his initial caretaker, Stephanie LaFarge, at risk by allowing her to enter Nim’s cage during a visit where she was attacked and Nim almost had to be shot to save her, and d) refused to even talk to Bob, the former student who had worked with Nim while he was at the Primate Research Facility at University of Oklahoma, and who had much valuable information that could have been used to improve Nim’s welfare. The animal rescue center even went so far as to threaten to arrest Bob if he tried to visit Nim at the facility. The reasons for the intense animosity of the personnel at the animal sanctuary towards Bob were never explained in the documentary, another one of those disconnects in the film that probably confused many viewers. Presumably, the explanation is that the animal rescue facility run by an animal rights activists considered anyone who worked at a Primate Research Facility at a University, such as Bob, to be “the enemy”.

And this leads to my biggest criticism of the documentary film. Given the evidence shown in various scenes, it is apparent to a viewer who watches the film carefully that there were complex relationships between individuals associated with Herb Terrace at Columbia University where Project Nim was carried out, The Primate Research Facility at University of Oklahoma where Nim was born and to which he was returned at the end of Project Nim, the pharmaceutical research facility at NYU where Nim was housed briefly later in his life, and the animal rescue center associated with Cleveland Amory where Nim lived for the past several years of his life. If I were to assign “good” and “bad” labels to the actions of various individuals interviewed in this film based on what the documentary evidence showed, it would be a quite different grouping from the impressions suggested by the narrative fashioned during the editing of the film. The filmmakers apparently did not trust their own material, and decided it was easier to fashion a simple story (scientific researchers at Universities are “evil” while animal rights activists are “good”) than to try to explain the various complex ethical issues inherent in what was documented. xi

Let me return now to the broad question I deferred earlier, What uses of animals by humans are appropriate? This is obviously a question to which thoughtful individuals have come to different conclusions, both historically and in our own era. Ideas about what is appropriate behavior of humans towards animals have evolved over the years, as have several ethical issues regarding the proper ways to treat other humans. There was a time in the not too distant past when many considered it appropriate to own human slaves. That is no longer the case. Similarly, the role of women in society has changed. As recently as the beginning of the 20th Century, women were not given the right to vote in the United States. Obviously, ideas about the ethics of human relationships has changed over time. The same thing is true about the ethical treatment of animals.

I recently watched an excellent documentary film, Buck, that showed a modern-day “horse whisperer”. Watching this documentary, I was struck by how much our attitudes towards the proper treatment of horses has changed during my lifetime. When I was a boy growing up in Montana, the accepted method for “adapting” a horse to accepting a human rider was referred to as “breaking” the horse. Those methods now seem brutal. Society’s attitudes towards how horses should be trained have changed, and for the better. Arguably, these changes reflect an improvement of human consciousness, and perhaps over time human consciousness will evolve sufficiently that many of the historical ways that humans have used and treated animals will be considered inappropriate, some barbaric. So much the better as far as I am concerned. And I fully support the idea that these issues need to be decided by society as a whole, not by those who currently use animals in some manner or another and thus have a vested interest in the subject.

Let me conclude with a few remarks regarding the use of animals in medical research, the area with which I am most familiar. The only major point I would emphasize is that there are no simple answers to questions about whether the use of animals in medical research is ethical. The bottom line is that there are tradeoffs between the negative consequences for animals used in medical research and medical gains for humans. I used many animals for the medical research I conducted as a research scientist prior to my retirement. If none of those animals had been used, it would have been good for the animals. However, there is no free lunch, metaphorically speaking. There are currently human babies who can see, who would be blind if I had not done that research. That would be a bad thing. Is that tradeoff, research animal lives for prevention of blindness in human babies, worth it? Some animal rights activists argue that it is not. I respect that opinion, but wonder how many of them have had a conversation with a parent of a baby who is slated to go blind without that research. I have. And having done so, I find it difficult to relate to individuals who are absolutely certain of the sanctimony of their own positions. In my experience, very few questions about ethical choices are clear-cut with one choice being absolute good and the other absolute  bad. What I do concede is that arguments supporting the use of animals for any purpose, including medical research, should be required to pass a high hurdle of scrutiny. For example, are there any other alternatives to using animals to achieve the same goal? One of the promising trends in this regard is that many important scientific questions that could only be addressed in the past by carrying out animal research, can now be addressed by other methods such as noninvasive imaging. Along with most other scientists, my hope would be that this will continue until at some point in the future there will be no need for animal research.

Ron Boothe


i     The chimpanzee’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was an inside joke. The scientific purpose of the experiment was to test some theories of language that had been developed by MIT linguist, Noam Chomsky.

ii     Bard, Street, McCrary, and Boothe, Development of Visual Acuity in Infant Chimpanzees, Infant Behavior and Development 18, 225-232, 1995

iii     For example, the Declaration of Independence for the United States asserts “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

vii     Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, Princeton University Press, 2006.

viii     For an example of a similar viewpoint by a former researcher see, NYT opinion 08/11/2011

ix     For examples see: F. Bruce Lamb, Wizard of the Upper Amazon, 1971; Richard Nelson, The Island Within, 1989.

x     There was also another ethical dimension highlighted in the interviews with Herb Terrace that I found deeply disturbing. Some of his comments about sexual relarionships involving former and current students involved with the project came across as, at best, inappropriate for a professor, and, at worst, characteristic of a sexual predator.

xi     The documentary used actors and robotic chimpanzees to produce “reenactments” for some scenes. These were not labeled as such, and it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for the average viewer to figure out which scenes were reenactments. So let me give a hint for any viewer who would to figure out which scenes were and were not. If the scene was used to create an image of brutality and inhumane treatment of an animal at a university research facility (images of guns and electric prods and animals looking hopelessly into the camera while tied down on a table, etc), it was a “reenactment”. The fact that these emotion producing “reenactments” (they made me shudder as I am sure they did many others in the viewing audience) were actually inconsistent with the documentary evidence shown in the interviews conducted with various individuals working at these facilities was one of the disconnects in the film, but probably only for those audience members who were paying close attention to the content. Most viewers watching this film will likely be simply swept along by the emotional narrative generated by the film editing, a simple story of evil researchers versus heroic animal activists.


One thought on “Planet of the Project Nim Ape

  1. Ron; What an incredible essay on this subject. Makes me sad that I did not attend your discussion group on NIM at the Grand. I never realized how much experience you had in this area. I have always been amazed at the naivete and stupidity of people who keep wild animals as pets, wolves, lions, leopards, cougar, bear, who never seem to understand when the animal turns of them at some point. Even our domestic pets are capable of this. Dobermans and Pit Bulls freak me a lot.

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