The Chimp Who Missed New York

The life of a chimp raised on the Upper West Side is detailed in Elizabeth Hess's Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. They took little Nim away from the wild while he was still nursing and imported him to New York — and it's all Noam Chomsky's fault! The 1970s experiment was part of an effort to disprove the linguist's assertion that non-humans were "fundamentally incapable of language." Heartbreakingly, Nim was shipped away from his beloved New York family after a year and a half, when the project's funding ran out. "He would just look at pictures of his New York City family, and himself, over and over again." Salon interviews the author, who dishes on Nim's relationship with an ex-circus chimp...

"He loved to be held, he drank from a bottle... He was very beguiling. They dressed him in OshKosh and little T-shirts, and taught him how to sit at the table and use utensils. I think he really enjoyed being part of the family.

... Everybody felt so bad that they'd worked so hard to convince him he was human, and then he was just shipped off at the end of the experiment. There was no exit plan. No one ever asked, "What's going to happen to the chimp?" In the '70s, this is the way research was done. At the end of the experiment, the animals were either euthanized or sent to the next experiment down the line. Nobody asked questions about it. There was a tremendous amount of sadness and guilt wrapped around the whole project.

...The former graduate students in New York believe that Nim had no idea he was a chimpanzee. One of them suggested to me that Nim might have thought he was going to grow up, lose all his facial and body hair and eventually look like the people who were around him. That would be a reasonable supposition. Throughout his life, Nim preferred to be with humans.

...Toward the end of his life, he was paired with an ex-circus chimp named Sally Jones. That, I think, was the first deep relationship he had with his own species. They were inseparable. Sally was a lot older, a lot milder. Nim had a reputation for breaking out of his cage in Texas. When Sally came, he would break out of his cage, but then he'd remember her, and he'd go back and get her. He'd lead her out of the cage and they'd go on a little romp together... Nim would go to the nearest house and bring Sally with him, and they would raid the refrigerator, go through the closets and try on any shoes that were lying around, and sometimes they'd get into bed and turn on the TV."

The Chimp Who Thought He Was a Boy [Salon]