Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess

June 25th, 2010

Book Review: Monkey Language

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess. Bantam. 369 pp. $23

Thankfully, Hess doesn't let her emotions interfere with her remarkable ability to retell (and research) Nim's story.

Thankfully, Hess doesn't let her emotions interfere with her remarkable ability to retell (and research) Nim's story.

If there’s anyone left on the planet who needs convincing that chimpanzees are more like us (or we’re like them) than they’d care to think they need to read Elizabeth Hess’s biography of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee who was taught to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL).

Animal biographies are a publishing curiosity. Me Cheeta: The autobiography, the memoir of Cheeta, the celebrity chimpanzee who swung from tree to fame in the Tarzan movies, was recently published. As clever as chimpanzees are no one really believes it was Cheeta who wrote it (it was James Lever). American Presidential pets are also notorious for writing books. Socks, the Clinton’s cat, wrote Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets (well, Hillary claims to have written it which is just as likely as Socks writing it). Bush Senior’s dog, Millie, wrote Millie’s Book; As Dictated to Barbara Bush (debatable, again, as to whether it was Millie or Barbara who wrote it). We look forward to the literary delights of Barney (Bush Junior’s dog), who will presumably write from his residential retreat in Midland, Texas. (Barney already has his own page on the White House website.)

Writing a serious biography of an animal is a formidable challenge, as I know from working with the artist, Sue Coe, on a project about Topsy, the elephant electrocuted by Edison in 1903. Human lives, unlike animal lives, are documented from birth to death. Hess’s accomplishment in Nim Chimpsky: The chimp who would be human is framing the biography to address his life and the lives of the humans and chimpanzees who shaped his life, starting as a controversial research tool and ending as a rescued celebrity.

From this beginning to the final years at The Fund for Animals’ Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas, Hess recounts Nim’s life and the cast of human and chimpanzee characters (there’s even a “Where They Are Now” for the people) with discipline and diligence.

Born at the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma and taken from his mother 10 days after his birth, Nim was given to an affluent white family to be raised in an Upper West Side Manhattan brownstone. Diapered and dressed like a human baby, he was taught American Sign Language in order to prove we are not the only ones with the capacity to learn language.

I reacted to Nim’s biography with anger and despair as well as a deeper appreciation of how unscientific science really can be when it wants to be. For example, the name, Nim Chimpsky, is a silly reworking of Noam Chomsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist who maintains only humans are capable of language. Science and anthropomorphism were conveniently cast aside throughout Nim’s life. He was raised as a human baby by people who had no relevant experience or professional training in chimpanzees and their welfare. He was taught ASL primarily by people who were either learning it for the first time or picked it up as they went along. The research proceeded without a secure financial foundation thereby putting the chimpanzees’ lives at continuous risk.

Thankfully, Hess doesn’t let her emotions interfere with her remarkable ability to retell (and research) Nim’s story. Every now and then, however, she let us know what she really thinks. These few moments underscore the understated approach she takes. Nim’s tragedy speaks for itself, as do all the other chimpanzees mentioned in the book, including Kitty, Midge, Lulu and Sally.

The recently published revised European Commission Council Directive (86/609/EEC) on animal research proposed a ban on the use of great apes (orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos). Animal advocates say this is an empty gesture. Apes are not used in the European Union for research. If there’s anyone left on the planet who needs convincing that this shouldn’t be the case for the rest of the world should read Elizabeth Hess’s biography of Nim, the chimp who endured the tragedy of being almost human.

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