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Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human [Paperback]

Elizabeth Hess
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Dec 30 2008


Now Elizabeth Hess’s unforgettable biography is the inspiration for Project Nim, a riveting new documentary directed by James Marsh and produced by Simon Chinn, the Oscar-winning team known for Man on Wire. Hess, a consultant on the film, says, “Getting a call from James Marsh and Simon Chinn is an author’s dream. Project Nim is nothing short of amazing.”

An adorable baby chimp, a loving family, and an experiment that changed the lives of all it touched . . .

Project Nim, the brainchild of a Columbia University psychologist, was designed to refute Noam Chomsky’s claim that language is an exclusively human trait. Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee chosen to realize this potentially groundbreaking experiment, was raised like a human child and taught American Sign Language while living with his “adoptive family” in their elegant Manhattan town house. But when funding for the study ended, Nim’s problems began. Over the next two decades he was exiled from the people he loved, put in a cage, and moved from one facility to another, including, most ominously, a medical research lab. But wherever he went, Nim’s humanlike qualities and his ability to communicate with humans saved him. A creature of extraordinary charm and charisma, Nim ultimately triumphed over a dramatic series of reversals and obstacles. His story, both moving and entertaining, also raises the most profound questions of what it means to be human—and about what we owe to the animals who enrich our lives.

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In what is surely one of the most memorable and intelligent recent books about animal-human interaction, Hess (Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter) tells the story of Nim Chimpsky, who in the 1970s was the subject of an experiment begun at the University of Oklahoma to find out whether a chimp could learn American Sign Language—and thus refute Noam Chomsky's influential thesis that language is inherent only in humans. Nim was sent to live with a family in New York City and taught human language like any other child. Hess sympathetically yet unerringly details both the project's successes and failures, its heroes and villains, as she recounts Nim's odyssey from the Manhattan town house to a mansion in the Bronx and finally back to Oklahoma, where he was bounced among various facilities as financial, personal and scientific troubles plagued the study. The book expertly shows why the Nim experiment was a crucial event in animal studies, but more importantly, Hess captures Nim's legendary charm, mischievous sense of humor, and keen understanding of human beings. This may well be the only book on linguistics and primatology that will leave its readers in tears over the life and times of its amazing subject. (Mar. 4)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Nim Chimpsky is a very important story that should go a long way toward reducing the likelihood of our betraying the trust of animals who depend on us for their well-being. Laugh, cry, and share widely.”—Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado; author of The Emotional Lives of Animals and Animals Matter; editor of the Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships

"If you read only one book about the strange, fruitful, and fraught relationship between humans and animals, let this be it."—Dale Peterson, author of Jane Goodall, The Woman Who Redefined Man

Nim Chimpsky is an indictment of our attitudes to our closest relatives."—Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University and author of In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave. and The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter

"An absolutely absorbing page-turner by a writer of such boundless empathy that she could tell an animal’s story and make it, yes—deeply human."—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickled and Dimed

"I stayed up all night reading this book and could not put it down. I became totally convinced that Nim understood sign language when he banged on a closed door and signed 'hurry open now.”—Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation

"A smart, tough-minded, big-hearted meditation on the fate of our nearest relatives, and a marvelous biography as well. The story of Nim Chimpsky tells us more about our own species than we probably want to hear, but we need to hear it, now."—Russell Banks, author of Darling

"An unforgettable biography of an extraordinary animal. Nim’s voice is on every page of this book. You will remember him long after the book has ended, and what he has taught you will change, forever, the way you look at animals."—Ruth Reichl, author of Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic

“Hess’s clear, lively, and gently sorrowful biography swings from Nim’s 26-year life story … to a larger portrait of the human researchers, philosphers, and caretakers who upended Nim’s life.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Elizabeth Hess' splendid account … amounts to a biography of Nim, a story every bit as stirring and elaborate as that of a famous person.”—Seattle Times

“As poignant an animal story as you can get…. Nim was an unforgettable character—affectionate, mischievous, empathetic, and utterly charming.”—Christian Science Monitor

From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
By Lynn
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I purchased this book after watching the documentary "Project Nim" I had read Herb Terrace's much earlier book and wondered what had happened to this celebrity chimp. The documentary upset me for days and I needed to know more--hence my purchase of the book.
This book is an excellent report of Nim Chimpsky's life from birth to his death. It touches on issues related to the use of sentient animals in research, and it is a reminder that our top dog homo sapiens species is often shamefully oblivious to the feelings of other species and of their need for specific contexts for living their lives.
This book and the 'Project Nim' documentary have made me want to contribute in more meaningful ways to animal welfare. For instance, I'm realizing that the use of companion animals like dogs and cats for fur production in Asian regions (many apparently stolen from households) is as wrong as the abuse Nim suffered after he had outgrown his utility to the language project. Creatures we befriend need our protection perhaps even moreso than those in the wild. Dogs and cats have been our companions for generations, and to subject them to inhumane death for their pelts is just wrong.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  44 reviews
61 of 71 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars False and misleading information Nov. 10 2009
By W. Benesch - Published on
It appears that Ms. Hess failed to check with the all participants of Project Nim for accuracy. The information about Delafield is both inaccurate and the time frame of those in the house is terribly incorrect. The initial move involved 4 people, Laura, Walter, Amy, and Andrea (who is never mentioned). The author states: "Terrace hired Amy Schachter and Walter Benesch (this reviewer), a couple who had occasionally worked with Nim over the past year and a half. Terrace invited them to move into Delafield, where they would share a bedroom (120)." This is not only false but liable. I was (a volunteer - not hired) moved into the room over the kitchen and Amy moved into a room on the 3rd floor. They were not a couple and did not meet each other until shortly before the move to Delafield. She also has the incorrect age for me. I worked as a youth service worker for the City full time and did not have his degree in social work as stated. I became involved in the project through his graduate work in anthropology, when Ralph Holloway referred him to Terrace. When I left the project it was to obtain a degree in social work.

Walter is described as "had hard work to keep ahead of the chimp." That is not so. Hess says that "Benesch would dutifully replace it (locks) with a new and more complex system." He never replaced a single lock. Likewise he never experienced the throwing of feces and other extreme behavior described while Nim was a Delafield with the one exception of the tantrum described below.

On page 124, she has Bob Johnson living in Delafield at the same time as Benesch. Again this is false information. Bob did not move in until Walter had left for more graduate work at Boston University. It appears the author did not read Dr. Terrace's book about the Sunday mornings where Walter (not Bob as he was not in Delafield at this time) would create pancake receipts together. When Walter left the project, Nim would not eat the plain pancakes others fixed since they lacked the spices and combination of flours and fruit Nim and I would put into the batter. We actually wrote (but never published) a pancake cookbook for children with the receipts Nim made, with his rating of each.

The story about Nim being dragged "into a small upstairs kitchen on the human side of the house. Benesch stayed with Nim as Tynan, outside locked the door (page 156-7)" is pure fictionalization of what actually happen. Tynan was not in the house at the time. Nim escaped into the upstairs common room that Laura and Amy would use. Yes, Walter was locked in while Nim had his tantrum. Likewise, he could not have "Called Tynan for help" since Tynan was not in the house at the time. It was Laura that called Walter for help. The rest of what is described on the following pages is again filled with half truths and a lot of misinformation.

Based upon reading the episode in which I was involved with Nim and how inaccurate it is, I have to raise serious doubts about the remainder of the book. Although I was very happy to find out about what happen to Nim after Delafield, the inaccuracies are so great it puts the remainder of the book in serious question.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A bittersweet, but wonderful piece March 21 2008
By Lisa M. Teehan - Published on
To keep this short and sweet, I received this book in the mail yesterday morning and finished all 300+ pages by last night. I could not put it down. It really touched my soul. I always considered myself an animal lover, but after reading this tragic story there is no doubt in my mind that animals really do have personalities, emotions and souls. Shame on people who treat them as if they were worthless and disposable. Although I found myself crying during various chapters in the book, I am so glad I read it because it really opened my eyes. It makes me want to get involved in animal rights! What a great tribute to such a wonderful soul that was Nim Chimpsky.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read March 11 2008
By Mary Gail Biebel - Published on
This book is a wonderful biography of Nim, a signing chimp, but it also serves as a study of the sometimes blurred boundaries between what it means to be an "animal" and what it means to be human. Elizabeth Hess has done an extraordinary job of unraveling Nim's story and presenting it in a lucid and compelling manner. She makes the story, the science, and the learnings from Nim's life accessible to the reader.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting subject, mediocre book Feb. 8 2009
By Matt Skuegler - Published on
I've read three animal language books recently -- this book, Next of Kin by Roger Fouts, and Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg. This was easily the weakest of the bunch. The subject matter was just as interesting, but the writing is below average. I vastly preferred the Fouts book to this one.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Moving Account Of An Unwittingly Cruel Experiment June 27 2008
By Michael G. Radigan - Published on
A thought-provoking, moving account of Columbia professor Herbert Terrace's attempt to teach a chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, American Sign Language. Among other things, this compellingly written account illustrates humanity's casual cruelty toward animals, even when the animal is as human-like as the chimpanzee. Lovingly raised as a human child for purposes of the research, Nim was cast aside once the experiment was deemed a failure. Even the most intelligent of Nim's human handlers had failed to think through the ethical implications of raising an intelligent, wild creature as a human being, or thought much about Nim's intense emotional life and connections to human beings. I really enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone with an interest in primates, human linguistics, animal rights, or, especially, our responsibilities toward the "dumb" animals that share the planet with us.
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