The Rumpus Interview with Robert Ingersoll, the Hero of PROJECT NIM

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In 1973, a psychology professor at Columbia University named Herb Terrace launched a study to see if a chimpanzee raised as a human could learn sign language. If it could, Terrace would prove that language was not a uniquely human trait and disprove the theories of Noam Chomsky, who was the reigning linguistic theorist at the time.

Nim Chimsky, as Terrace named him, was born in a primate research facility in Norman, Oklahoma and taken from his mother when he was two weeks old.   His human foster mother flew with him to her posh brownstone in Manhattan and introduced him to her children as their new brother.  For the next few years he was treated like a child – breastfed, dressed in human clothes, tucked into bed at night.  He learned sign language, helped his family cook dinner and played pranks on them – hiding utensils, sneaking out of locked rooms.  When showed flashcards of humans and chimps and asked to place his photo with one of the groups, he repeatedly chose humans.

As he grew older, he became harder to manage.  He bit peoples’ arms, and then faces, when he was agitated.  His moods were unpredictable.  Terrace moved Nim from the brownstone to a country manor called Delafield, where Nim was watched round-the-clock by students and kept on a lead, but even in this more structured environment Nim was hard to control.  Frustrated and worried by Nim’s increasingly severe bites, Terrace asked the research facility at Norman to take him back.  Nim’s most trusted caretakers, Joyce Butler and Bill Tynan, were enlisted to help move him.

Adjusting to the facility was difficult. Nim’s clothes and toys were taken from him; he was placed in a cage with other chimpanzees, animals he’d never seen before.  Chimpanzees suffer from severe depression when removed from their families, and Nim was languishing until a Norman staffer named Robert Ingersoll befriended him.  Ingersoll took Nim for eight-hour hikes every day; they smoked pot, chatted about their surroundings, went fishing and picked berries.

When the research facility ran out of funding, the owner of the facility sold the chimpanzees, including Nim, to the NYU-owned Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP). Ingersoll wrote press releases and organized protests to try and save the chimps, but was largely ignored until a lawyer took the case. Nim and his brother were released; the other chimpanzees remained.

Nim was bought by an equine sanctuary in Texas, and lived the rest of his life in a cage there.  Ingersoll remained Nim’s unofficial guardian, badgering the ranch manager and owner about Nim’s care, and eventually succeeded in getting Nim a chimp companion. Nim died of a heart attack in 2000 at the age of 26–about half the expected lifespan of chimps in the wild.

The story has been chronicled in a book called Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess, and most recently in a documentary called PROJECT NIM by director James Marsh.  The following is an edited transcript of a ninety-minute phone conversation with Robert Ingersoll.

Robert Ingersoll works as the President of Mindy’s Memory a Primate Sanctuary based in Newcastle, Oklahoma. He divides his time between Newcastle and his home in San Francisco.

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Robert Ingersoll: I met Nim the day when Joyce Butler and Bill Tynan went on the last walk they ever took with Nim.  I accompanied them because I knew how to get away from the photographers. They got to feed him some yogurt. They looked like they’d been shocked with an electric shock–traumatized. That’s when I realized, oh man, this is bad.  These humans are severely traumatized, and Nim equally so. Nim wasn’t the first chimp that we got back like that.  I’ve seen several chimpanzees be dead within a week or so from their trauma [after being returned from their human foster homes].

The Rumpus: That shocked me as I was reading Nim Chimpsky. Besides Nim, there were so many other instances of chimps being sent out to human foster homes and then returned a few years later and completely falling apart.  It’s hard for me to understand the amount of repetition–how that could happen over, and over, and over again.

Ingersoll: Yeah, well, it’s called replication in science.  And, in the middle 70s, things were pretty loose in terms of responsibility.  So it doesn’t surprise me that chimpanzee babies were handed out willy nilly to pretty much anyone that wanted one; you can still buy a baby chimpanzee right now, today, if you want.  In our culture, animals are property.

I know exactly what you’re saying, because I lived it.  I’ve got PTSD from all this.  The reality is that lab chimpanzees have a better chance of becoming re-socialized and gaining back some of their chimp-ness than humanized chimps.  The humanized chimps, ones who are living with humans without chimps around them, are the ones who are the most damaged psychologically.

Rumpus: Can you say more about that?

Ingersoll: They think, at least partly, that they’re human. There have been several studies about chimpanzees that were “cross-fostered.” Those animals have a difficult time ever becoming a chimp, because they always see themselves at least partly as a human. They become the most difficult to handle, because they still habituate to humans.  And in spite of the fact that great effort is made to re-socialize them with other chimps, it’s much more difficult.  They’re very delicate and social animals.  I don’t think the general public really understands what being a social animal means.  It means you learn from all the other animals that are like you in your group–like we do. We learn how to be humans from other humans, usually our mothers. That gets broken down when chimps are raised up as little humans with earrings and [eventually are] not wanted anymore.

Rumpus: I’m interested in what you just said about “not wanting” them anymore. How do you think that human foster parents justify giving up their chimps?  It’s understandable why it becomes untenable to contain an adult or adolescent chimp in a human home. But when human foster families have started to regard their chimp as a daughter or son, how do you think they’re able to then send them back to captivity?

Ingersoll: That’s a damn good question. I don’t know. It’s kind of like Sophie’s Choice, although I don’t like to use the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement to compare to what’s going on with chimps. It’s not acceptable to talk in those terms, simply because we haven’t included all humans in the human race yet. We’re not even comfortable yet with our own little groups of humans, never mind allowing chimpanzees to have that.  I hate to make those comparisons because it’s a slippery slope, but it’s very similar. When Herb says in the film [that talking with chimpanzees] would be so amazing, like talking to an alien from another planet, it’s almost comical. These other beings are the aliens that we’re looking for. They’re right here on the planet.

Rumpus: Can you say a little bit more about Nim’s personhood? You’ve described him as “charming.”

Ingersoll: You know when you meet some people, like James Marsh [the director of Project Nim] – he’s about the most charming human being I’ve ever met in my life. Nim was like that: open, nice, and easily accessible.  It’s hard to explain, but the best analogy I can make is when I was eight or nine years old, I had a friend named Nathan Farmer.  I liked this kid just because we liked to do the same stuff together. We liked to go ride bikes and play baseball, and do the kind of things you do when you’re little, and you’re not stressed by the rest of the world yet.  You know how some kids are hard to deal with, and you have a friend that you just get along with? Nim was like that.

Rumpus: Repeatedly throughout the documentary and the book I was struck by the destructive power–or just the power–of human ego, and the way that dictated so much of what happened.

Ingersoll: Well, you’re a human, you know how that works. At Sundance Laura Petitto said that if it weren’t for her teaching Nim sign language, he wouldn’t have been saved.  I had to point out to her that the reason Nim got out was because he was famous.  And the reason he got out because he was famous was because Cleveland Amory wanted to use him in publicity stunts in order to make money and support the Fund for Animals.

I have a giant ego myself.  But fortunately for the chimps, I was able to put that aside for them.  I guess it’s because I spent many years hanging out with a lot of chimps and almost identify more with them than I do with humans.  It has to be that, because otherwise I have a giant ego; I don’t think I could be doing all these crazy Q&As otherwise.

There were some people in New York who were not happy with the book, because they weren’t interviewed.  The reality is you can’t tell every single little tiny detail.  I’ve encountered a number of Nim’s ex-teachers [whose] egos were hurt.

I was willing to participate in Elizabeth’s book, because I think it reflects better on the truth.  People aren’t going to believe what I say about my experience.  I’d rather have some independent person who has nothing to gain or lose by telling the truth to lay it all out.  Some of the book doesn’t make me look that great – I smoked pot with Nim on a regular basis.

Rumpus: And he would ask for it?

Ingersoll: Yeah, he did ask for it, actually.  Those are the kinds of things that even my mom is still like, ‘Do you have to talk about that all the time?’  And I’m like, ‘Mom, you have to tell the truth.’  Then she says, ‘Well, did you have to give them that footage of you smoking a joint right there on film?’  No, I didn’t, but the reality is that if I didn’t, someone would say something about it.  I don’t want to have to answer to that, so I’d just as soon lay it all out. I was 24 to 30 years old, and yeah, I smoked weed.  Big deal. Nim liked it. One joint every week or so?  Come on.

I’ve gone off on a tangent here, but you know, human egos are incredibly interesting.  I think a lot of the stuff that’s being said now is backpedaling on what happened.  I’ve heard Herb say that he wouldn’t have done what he did [if he’d known better], that he would’ve had an exit strategy.  I’d be interested to know what that would have been.  How can you have an exit strategy for something that is so traumatic that you can never undo it?  Taking that baby away from its mother can never be undone, no matter how many terms you come up with, like “cross fostering.”  You stole the baby from its mother.  You’re not foster parenting it.  There are a lot of terms in primatology that soften the blow of what’s going on behind the scenes.

Rumpus: What do you think of Herb Terrace’s claim that the project was a failure?  He said Nim was just a skilled beggar.

Ingersoll: Yeah, well, I’ve never seen a dog or any other animal ‘beg’ like that.  You know?  If indeed it was a failure, it was Herb’s failure, not Nim’s.  Herb’s right that the sentences and grammar that Nim produced were not spoken or written English grammar, or syntax for that matter.  But the reality is that neither is American Sign Language [ASL] when it’s spoken by a native signer.  Syntax and grammar in ASL is completely different than syntax and grammar in spoken and written English.

Herb might be accurate in that narrow sense of his data, and in his failure to actually even attempt to teach grammar or sentences.  I’ve read all his stuff; I didn’t see any real concerted effort to bring in native signers.  He didn’t consult the sign language community.  There’s some more arrogance for you.

Rumpus: The Project Nim team didn’t consult anyone who had expertise with chimpanzees, for that matter.

Ingersoll: Right.  On every level Herb thought that PhD that he got from Harvard meant that he was a genius in everything.  Not being from an academic background – most of my relatives, [including] my mom and dad, didn’t go to college – it took me a while to figure out that this PhD thing is like a little clique, you know, a little club.  You have to be in the club in order to get recognized.  I have lots of hours towards my PhD, and I have a Masters; I just don’t care about it.  But I’ve had many people, including Jane Goodall, say, ‘You really need to get your degree before you can interact on this level.’

Fortunately for me I’m persistent enough to still be here.  I’m an expert on this.  My life experience is at least as valuable as going to school.  Not to discount education – I’m a firm believer in the library.  I spent many, many, many hours reading every single thing I could about chimps.  You can’t study chimps if you don’t know about them.

Rumpus: But clearly people thought they could.

Ingersoll: Yeah, which I find amazing.  Herb’s job as principal investigator [should have been] to make sure everybody that worked on that project knew everything they could about all the aspects that were important to the project, from American Sign Language to chimpanzee behavior to teaching behavior, to how do teachers teach sentences and grammar and syntax? But none of that was done. None of it.

To come back later and compile this data, which is, to me, worthless, into some sort of indictment against Nim, is flawed.  And then to end all the language experiments, which was the effect of Herb’s 1979 paper in Science – that’s not acceptable.

Rumpus: There’s a scene in LEMSIP where the caged chimps are signing “key,” “out,” “play” and “hug” to the medical researchers.  Clearly those were sentient beings communicating desires that any empathic human could understand.  I guess Herb’s argument was just that Nim didn’t use sign language correctly?

Ingersoll: Well what he’s saying is that Nim doesn’t have language.  Philosophically it’s another one of those ‘humans are unique because ___’ arguments.   Some humans cannot let go of that hierarchical thing that says ‘humans are separate from the animals because _____.’  And I’m like, no they’re not.  You are born to your mother, just like any other mammal, and you’re going to die, just like any other mammal.

Rumpus: And yet, the argument that was made in the film by the lawyer to get Nim out of LEMSIP was to say that he was raised as a human and thus was entitled to human rights.

Ingersoll: Right.  Not because he’s a being, but because he’s a human.  I don’t draw any lines [between humans and animals].  I’m a person that grew up eating lobsters and corned beef and cabbage and stuff.  Now I couldn’t imagine doing that.  Because I guess I’ve evolved, or whatever, in my realization that all the other animals on the planet are just like us.  They’re just trying to have a life, and to make it through that life in as happy, fun and uncluttered a way as they can.

Rumpus: Do you think that it was the experience of being able to communicate with another species that evolved your awareness, so to speak?

Ingersoll: No question about it.  Up until that time I’d seen dogs, maybe a few cats, that’s about it.  In one other situation when I was about six years old, in 1960, I was in Boston staying with my grandparents – this didn’t even occur to me until years later when I met the chimps for the first time.  My grandfather liked to go for a ride after dinner to one of the first department stores.  They had a pet [department] in the back, and my grandfather took me there one night.  He reached into his suit pocket to get some gum, and a capuchin monkey started interacting with my grandfather on a level that no other animal I’d ever seen or heard of was doing.  They were having a conversation, and it was about the gum.

The first time I ever went out with chimps, fourteen or fifteen years later, that whole thing about my grandfather having an interaction with an animal, much more sophisticated than any other animal I had ever seen, happened to me.  I was hanging out with Nim’s older brother Ally and another chimpanzee named Vanessa.  I immediately had an interaction with them.  We engaged one another in a way that I didn’t think was possible.

Rumpus: How would you describe the engagement–what was it like?

Ingersoll: It was like talking to somebody from another planet.  I didn’t know much sign language, but Ally was pretty good, and he was immediately signing his head off.  I was learning signs on the fly.  It was beyond wild.  Whatever it was that we were doing, I immediately wanted to continue to do that for as long as I could.  There’s no question that that made a big difference to me.

Rumpus: So maybe it wasn’t about the use of language between you two but the ability to understand the thought processes of another being.

Ingersoll: Yeah, to look in each other’s eyes and know what we’re thinking. You know, they’re pretty basic.  They don’t want talk about Shakespeare; they want to do stuff that relates to their life. Mostly it’s having fun, relaxing and being comfortable, being familiar and certain that things are not going to go awry. Chimpanzees are still wild animals. They’re still a little bit nervous. You have to be conscious of that. Even in a situation where you know the chimp really well, you can still get hurt. Stuff can happen. When Renee got bit on the face, I don’t know that they expected that to happen. But they weren’t reading the cues. They didn’t know chimps well enough to know, hmm, we better not do this. As it turns out, I talked to [one of Nim’s teachers at Delafield], and he said that she had ‘bite me’ written all over her. So it was just a matter of time before she was gonna get nailed. If someone doesn’t allow themselves to become in tune with a chimpanzee, it’s eventually going to be bad. They’re going to do something that’s going to piss that chimp off or do something inappropriate. Chimps bite as discipline.  They’re saying, ‘Hey I’m gonna bite you; don’t do that again.’

Rumpus: They’re teaching you their manners.

Ingersoll: Yeah, it’s kind of like a spanking.  If you watch chimps for any length of time, you see it.  In chimp culture, that’s how they teach each other how to behave.  Some people can’t read that.

Rumpus: Do you think it’s pride that keeps people from being able to read it?  They don’t want to humble themselves?

Ingersoll: Hard to say.  You’ve seen parents that are good and bad.  You’ve seen parents that without striking, hitting or doing any kind of violence can still deal with their kids – that’s pretty complex.  Being able to adjust to different personalities is probably key.  I imagine good mothers are able to adjust to their kids as differing personalities.  I hate to make those kinds of comparisons, but they’re very accurate.  It occurred to James Marsh, after he watched literally hundreds of hours of chimp stuff, that it was very similar to his children.  He said, ‘Bob, it’s really similar to how you deal with your kids.’  And I said, ‘Yeah it really is, James.’

Rumpus: Nim passed away relatively young.  Do you think that was a result of all the stress that he had been through?

Ingersoll: To be honest with you, I’m not sure.  I think that it probably had something to do with the diet that he ate [at Black Beauty Ranch] for many years before Chris Byrn, [the new ranch manager], came along and [gave him] a more chimp-friendly diet.  [Before that] they were feeding him donuts.  But you can’t really say that, because this is the reality:  In captivity, in all the great apes, there’s a spike in death among the males at around that age.  We don’t know why.  It may be it has something to do with the stress of captivity.  It may be that there are certain things about captivity that do things to chimps’ hearts that cause this.  We just don’t know.  So it wouldn’t be fair to blame Black Beauty Ranch or whoever was caring for Nim, because it’s just not clear.

As it turns out, Nim’s older brother Onnan, who I helped to place at Primarily Primates during that time as part of the secret network, also died when he was 26.  Same thing – enlarged heart and heart attack.  It’s a tragedy.  My wife says that I’m probably going to mourn Nim for the rest of my life, which is pretty damned accurate.

Rumpus: Is there anything that the movie didn’t cover that you wish it had?

Ingersoll: In a 93-minute movie you can’t really say everything.  If you’ve read the book, you know that I went in the cage before Stephanie.  [James Marsh] couldn’t include everything because he’s painting in broad strokes in order for you to get a feel for Nim’s life in a way that’s consistent and honest.  I think he does a damn good job.

I’m somewhat uncomfortable with this whole hero thing. I’m not a hero, although I understand how people say that.  Most people in the audience, when they see the film, and they participate in it, they think that they would be me if they were put in the same situation, which is pretty flattering.  I end up being a character in this movie.  It can’t really tell everything there is to know about me.  The book’s a little bit better about that.  And Joyce’s role in Nim’s life is a little bit bigger than what is depicted in the film.

Rumpus: It seems like she dropped out.

Ingersoll: She didn’t really drop out. She still wears it on her sleeve to this day.   I think that she is more traumatized probably than anyone. She really felt it.   There’s a scene in the film when she’s sitting on the porch at Delafield [right before Nim was moved to the research center at Norman], and her lip’s quivering. I can’t watch that scene. I can’t even think about that scene without coming to tears, because I know Joyce so well.

I also saw Joyce and Nim together when he was an adult, and trust me: Joyce and Nim loved one another on one of those levels that it’s hard to even understand. You could see it. Like an older sister and a younger brother. Truly beautiful. I think that Nim loved her more than any other human. I know he loved me, and I know I loved him, but sometimes there’s a special spot in your heart for a particular person. And I think that person was Joyce for Nim.  And thank god that he had more than one person [besides me] to be able to relate to.



Megan Foley teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Thought Catalog, Freerange Nonfiction, Canteen Magazine, The Village Voice, Poet Lore, and others. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. More from this author →