It was a glance that changed my life. Looking out of my breakfast window just beyond our bird feeder and pine trees was a sight I never imagined I would see at age fourteen on Douglas Avenue in Riverdale, New York: a small chimpanzee in a red long-sleeved shirt and blue overalls taking a stroll with a woman holding his hand. I was enthralled and enchanted. His name was Nim Chimpsky, in homage to the linguist Noam Chompsky. What I did not know at that time was that Nim’s life was far away from the ideals of the humane professor.
Years later, after I watched the film Project Nim, which was gutting, it became clear to me that Nim’s life not the fantasy I had envisioned since first meeting him as an adolescent girl. God bless primatologist Bob Ingersoll—who knew Nim later in his life—for helping me understand what happened to our friend. It is in this story of the unlocking of Nim’s cage that my devotion to the Nonhuman Rights Project was born.
A nonhuman person
After I became aware of Nim, I—like any 14-year-old girl who sees a primate taking a walk outside her kitchen window—had to get to know him. Nim was irresistibly cute. He was a baby chimpanzee, after all. It was the early 70s. Nim was learning sign language under the care of a professor named Herb Terrace as part of a Columbia University experiment on nonhuman animal language acquisition that was about as supervised as Woodstock. But it had all the look of a well thought-out program. The large Delafield Estate with its massive grounds sprawled throughout the neighborhood—so far, in fact, that as children we were certain “the Russians were involved” (we were big fans of the 70s show Hogan’s Heroes, which led me and my brother Dana on more than one mission to try to rescue Nim).
I quickly learned that Nim’s morning walks often took place in front of our home. I was determined to become a playmate with this remarkable little “person.” Eventually the powers that be invited me into the sanctuary of Nim’s abode: a large playroom with more toys than any child could dream of, including, of course, a huge playground-style jungle gym. Nim played in style! But I was also aware that his strength surpassed that of any human. For example, with curious delight, he could hold my dog by one leg and and spin him around into a happy landing (less happy for my dog than for Nim). Nim was taken by everyone and knew we were enthralled by his charm and intelligence.
What we had in common
Nim was fun. He was taught to sign “Nim loves Lexi” (two fingers over his thumb and down, arms crossed, L to his forehead) and I was taught the only sign language I have ever known: “Lexi Loves Nim.”
Nim and I had another thing in common: loss. He had lost his mother—he was taken from her when he was two weeks old—and my mother was very ill at that time, having nearly died shortly before I met Nim. My interactions with this young chimpanzee were magical, full with the hope and solace that humans can be better and evolve to treat each other and our nonhuman friends with respect, because without them we are entirely lost.
Winter came and I did not see Nim for a long time. I tried to visit him on my own with my larger dog Harvey in tow by sneaking through the grand gates at the Delafield Estate after a snowfall. It was a foolish move. Harvey nearly drowned in an icy pond as he desperately tried to hold on to the sides with his paws. Someone from inside the house came and helped us and sent me and my nearly freezing dog home. But I was not deterred from wondering what had happened to Nim.
As time went on, I was told Nim was too old to play with me safely. As a teenager these things do not register. Enter: “Project Rescue Nim”!
In warmer months, the thick trees and deep bed of rhododendrons in the back of our property were a wonderful place not only to talk about crushes and how to avoid the bully on our street, but also to hide and keep a lookout for Nim and plan our rescue mission before “the Russians” took him away for good. In our one and only attempt, however, someone from the house came out and discovered us and we fled for our lives. I shoved my brother, who was much smaller than I was, over the fence that was designed to keep the whole world out, and we barely made it over (convinced the Gestapo had nearly gotten us—okay, we watched way too much Hogan’s Heroes!). We knew it was our last rescue mission and I never saw Nim again.
I had no idea how horrid Nim’s life would become in the months and years ahead.
A being helpless and without rights
In 2012, I cozied up to watch Project Nim, having no idea that what I thought would be a relaxing film about my old childhood friend I’d have to watch in two parts because it would be so upsetting. I was in such visceral pain as I watched his journey into hell after having been raised as a human child that I wondered if the human race had lost its collective mind. I was inconsolably crying, keening.
At age 47 I was diagnosed with an extremely rare disease, a form of periodic paralysis that sometimes renders me entirely helpless. So when I saw Nim strapped to table with his arms stretched out in desperation and despair, stripped of his dignity and his rights, it reminded me of too many ER runs, including one in particular when paramedics taped my head to a board instead of using a proper neck brace. Nim and I had that in common, too. The difference is, our legal system recognizes my inalienable rights, but not the rights of autonomous beings like Nim, imprisoned as if he had committed a crime against humanity.
To see Nim helpless gutted me. My childhood notions were replaced by the picture of a greedy university professor who didn’t care at all about the well being of the chimpanzee he used in his experiments. I learned from watching the film that in 1977 Nim had apparently injured a grad student (Woodstock coming undone), thus bringing an end to the experiments and resulting in Nim’s return to his “owner,” the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies. After the film was over, I reached out to Bob Ingersoll, who spent time with Nim at IPS when he was at the school as an undergrad psychology major. Then and in later years, Bob did more than anyone to return some dignity and happiness to a primate who, when his arms weren’t strapped down to a laboratory slab, was cognitively complex enough to sign my name (and many other words and phrases).
No going home
For me, the darkest irony of Project Nim is in the final moments of the film when Nim has an opportunity to see Herb and the other humans who’d been his “parents” for all intents and purposes. Despite what he may have experienced as Herb’s betrayal and abandonment, and knowing there was no going “home,” no going anywhere for him, Nim doesn’t choose to attack. He looks at them with contempt but chooses what I see as agape love, simply walking away and turning his back. I believe that in the end he knew he was better than the evil they perpetrated on him. In this especially, he demonstrated his personhood.
IPS sold Nim to NYU’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) where he was kept in a cage and experimented on in ways no being should be. NYU then sold him to the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, where he lived mostly in isolation for a decade but still received regular visits from Bob.
Nim died in 2000 of a heart attack at age 27—decades sooner than he might have had his fundamental right to bodily liberty been recognized and respected.
Written on the 49th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a dear friend of my mother Anne. May civil rights, including nonhuman rights, continue to matter for the sake of all vulnerable beings and all who have devoted their lives to nonviolence, civil disobedience, and the words of Dr. King: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”