“It’s the humans I wanted to leave; not the project”
If James Marsh‘s documentary Project Nim tells us anything it’s that you must lay out the objectives of scientific experiments concerning animals before heading blindly into them. Columbia University’s Herbert Terrace wanted to see if he could teach a chimpanzee how to communicate by integrating one into a family of humans from birth but never took into consideration the intrinsic emotional and psychological bond we make with those we raise. Enlisting former student—and sexual partner—Stephanie LaFarge to be the surrogate mother, his experiment evolves into a soap opera uncovering more ethical quandaries than legitimate scientific findings to make the entire endeavor a futile effort doing nothing more than shedding light on the hubris of mankind and our need to laud our superiority over lesser cognitive creatures.
From the outside looking in through a media filtered window holding Terrace in high esteem, one can see baby Nim Chimpsky’s removal from mother Carolyn by force inside Dr. William Lemmon’s compound as liberation. As LaFarge takes the primate to her new upper West Side brownstone with her three children, new husband Wer, and his four kids, charity and love clouds our view of reality. It doesn’t take long before the truth of the situation is uncovered and a 1970s lifestyle devoid of discipline and regulation rears its head. Nim begins to enforce his male supremacy by showing Wer no affection and his free reign of the yard and children make him more rambunctious pet than punishable child. LaFarge never asked her family for permission and they all saw how the chimp usurped their relationships with her. Once talk about sexuality and his exploration of her naked body surface, the project’s legitimacy is almost rendered moot.
Terrace blames himself and starts to set in motion the process of regaining control. Enlisting a slew of female teachers—his own 70s sexuality blurring the line between professional and personal—he removes Nim from the only home he’s known and sets up headquarters at a new, larger estate. How much time he actually spent there is debatable besides scheduled photo shoots so it’s Laura-Ann Petitto who becomes his new mother and along with sign language teachers Bill Tynan, Joyce Butler, and Renee Falitz begins his new education. Words are learned and mimicked as Nim discovers the ability to mime what’s taught in order to get what he desires. Aggressive tendencies grow as he ages and his feral chimpanzee nature is no longer held in check behind the human façade they all thought they created. After victims receive multiple stitches and an ever-growing discomfort with Terrace’s ill-gained fame is cultivated, the question arises about how safe and productive the research is.
And here is where the floating heads in interview takeover the film from the title’s namesake. We hear weird stories like LaFarge breast-feeding Nim for two months, the alcohol and marijuana consumption no one seemed to mind allowing him to partake in, and the carnal relationship he builds with a pet cat on the property. Personalities clash as we discover who is in this game for themselves and who has Nim’s best interests at heart. LaFarge’s allusions to bestial desires only force us to wonder about her sanity while Herbert’s attempts to distance himself from any liability or ownership turns him into the worst possible villain possible—cognizant of his misdeeds and uncaring about the resulting horrors to follow. Petitto still to this day calls Nim ‘animal’ and her need for attention and fame always appears to supercede the work she was supposedly honored to participate in.
But when you listen to people like Butler and Tynan talk you are able to see the full scope of their selfless love. In the lion’s den more than any other, they knew why they were involved and didn’t care about achieving notoriety. It was all about Nim and allowing him to excel in the atmosphere they’d helped accustom him to. So when Terrace decides to close shop and send him back to Dr. Lemmon’s in order to assimilate with his own kind—a species never before interacted with—these two teachers are visibly devastated in their recountings. It’s easy as a viewer to appreciate their sentiments and agree throwing the chimp to the wolves of a brutal clan that could easily destroy him was atrocious because Marsh vividly draws the lines between good and evil and has no qualms showing everyone in the light they deserve.
Unfortunately it never seems to be up to the caring few when the future wellbeing of guinea pigs is in question. Tynan and Butler have no control over the situation when Nim is sent away to eventually become part of NYU’s LEMSIP disease research risking to kill him inside a program built to watch chimps die so human lives can be saved. To them the only thing left to do is give him familiar faces to help acclimate him to the new home. It’s a tearful goodbye as the bureaucratic coldness existing at the center of Nim’s life coincides with the understanding of Terrace’s lack of compassion towards an animal he supposedly loved. Uncaring of the damage he’d cause returning with a camera crew a year after abandoning him just to leave again, the examples of psychological strife wrought are incalculable.
Never allowed to be a chimp, Nim wasn’t able to be human either. Taken for granted and tossed aside, it’s no wonder a teacher found her cheek ripped open or a former ‘mother’ was met with violent rage when reunited decades later. Some involved do terrible things and are redeemed—Dr. James Mahoney—while others prove their loyalty and unwavering desire to help against all odds—Bob Ingersoll. But no matter these heroes or Nim forever caught between two worlds without a home, Project Nim will always be seen as the failed experiment of a few egotistical minds looking for greatness at the expense of those devoid of a voice. We want to remember this misguided chimpanzee’s conflicted soul who never reached his full potential yet all we see is Terrace’s smug face orating scripted jargon as he dupes the American public into believing he was God.
 Professor Herbert Terrace with Nim Chimpsky in car as seen in PROJECT NIM. Photo credit: Susan Kuklin
 Laura-Ann Petitto teaching Nim Chimpsky sign language, as seen in PROJECT NIM. Photo credit: Susan Kuklin
 Nim Chimpsky, as seen in PROJECT NIM. Photo credit: Harry Benson.