Recently I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Primatologist Bob Ingersoll, who is an active advocate for chimpanzees and was one of the key players in the life of Nim Chimpsky, the extraordinary chimp who was the subject of an experiment in language development in chimpanzees. Initially raised as if he were human, Nim communicated using sign-language until the humans he was working with, did not know what to do with him any longer. Here, Bob talks about his work, his memories of Nim, and the film which is opening at Violet Crown Cinema this Friday, PROJECT NIM.
Elizabeth Skerrett: How did you first get involved with chimpanzees?
Bob Ingersoll: As it turns out, I was in the air force and I met this girl from Oklahoma who I ended up marrying. So I moved across the country to where she was living in Missouri, a couple of hundred miles from Oklahoma in Kansas City. And while I was there in 1974, I heard about Washoe [a chimpanzee who was being raised as a human] from a graduate student who was teaching my introduction to zoology lab. And I was in that class where this guy who was a kid himself, could not stop talking about this talking chimpanzee in Oklahoma. And that made me wonder what he was talking about so I did a little research and found out about Washoe and Roger Fouts who had all this going on at the University of Oklahoma. And as it turns out, I was going to be going to the University of Oklahoma in a few months because my then-wife was getting out of the Air Force and we were moving to Norman to be students at the university there. And lo and behold Roger Fouts was my first professor in my first class at OU. So I went up to him and said, “I want to work with you.” And he said, “Sure”. He told me what to do, and I did it, and a few days later I was with Nim’s older brother, Ally. So that’s how it happened. I accidentally ended up in Oklahoma and coincidentally ended up in Roger Fouts’ class. And it was a stroke of luck for me because I was looking for something meaningful in my life after having gotten out of the military in the Vietnam War and not really knowing what the hell I was going to do, or who I was going to be.
ES: That’s awesome.
BI: Yeah, I was really lucky.
ES: So what was your first impression of Nim and his previous caretakers?
BI: Well, Nim was already in New York, because he was born in 1973, a year before I fell into the whole chimpanzee-sign-language debate. I knew about Nim because I was hanging out with his older brother, Ally, but I didn’t know much about his personality. I knew how Ally was. He was kind of skittish and gun-shy around humans. His personality wasn’t nearly as accessible as Nim’s. In the scene of the film where you see Joyce and Bill bring him to the center and they’re holding Nim, looking like, “Holy crap”, I’m sure that’s how Nim was too. Well I happened to be there that day, watching the events unfold from the sidelines because I was just a student. And I immediately thought, “Man, this is bad.” Not only do these two humans really love this chimp with all their heart, they are supremely bummed because they don’t really have a say in this. And Nim was even more freaked out because he was seeing a bunch of chimps in cages, but he had never seen a chimp before other than the two weeks he spent with his mother. I thought that this was bad and it was just going to get worse. After they left, I had empathy for both Joyce and Bill, and I just thought that the best thing that I could do was to become friends and see what happens. And I found Nim to be just awesome, really open, and accessible, and friendly, and funny, and fun to be around. You’d think he would be pissed off at the circumstances. But he didn’t know that he should have been in Africa and he should have had a family of chimps. So he was pretty open to whatever was happening and it didn’t take him very long, in my opinion, to really accept that he was a chimp. From the time I met him, my first thought was to make him a chimp. And what better way than to let him hang out with other chimps. So that’s what we did as much as we could until the chimps got tangled up in that mess of getting sold to the Laboratory for Experimentation and Surgery in Primates. I was pretty vocal about the whole situation because all chimps are individual beings and deserve the same kind of treatment. It’s an ongoing controversy. Nim is kind of the poster-boy for “what-not-to-do with chimps.”
ES: That’s a theme of the movie, isn’t it? The powers that be making decisions that are not in the best interest of many individuals and they don’t have any control over it. For instance, Nim was separated from his mother, Stephanie, his first foster-mother, the students, and then from you.
BI: Right. Chimps were treated like property. And I think that is an issue when you realize that these are living, feeling beings. It is difficult to address that. It seems to me that we are grappling with how to deal with it because obviously, chimpanzees are not machines. How do we deal with that as humans? How do we deal with our closest relatives? It seems to me that a lot of these issues are more philosophical than scientific. At the time, I was just a kid and was still mulling over the ethical ramifications of the experiment in my head. I was starting to meet chimps and understand them on their level. From the 1975 perspective, I have to say that nobody, or not very many people, thought that what they were doing, taking a chimp into a human family and seeing what happens, seemed that unusual back then. Now, that seems crazy – really crazy. Now, my problem with Herb is his lack of methodology and blaming Nim for something that wasn’t his fault. And I have a big problem with the fact that they did not know anything about chimps. That’s a thing that could have easily been solved. Chimpanzees are a lot more complex than we give them credit for. When you are actually interacting with an animal, it is a real eye-opener.
ES: One last question, and this one is admittedly a little off-subject. But did you see the film, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES?
BI: Hell yeah! I was sitting there in the audience thinking, “This film is about my life!” And they have alluded to the fact that they know all about Nim and that guy who is the star…
ES: James Franco.
BI: Yeah. He was very aware of Project Nim while they were filming that movie. I found RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to be very engaging, extremely entertaining, and an accurate portrayal of what goes on in labs in terms of the boredom and other things that go on, philosophically. I also really liked that the chimps and the orangutans are the heroes of that movie, as opposed to the humans. It seems to me anyway that that movie is way ahead of its time. And I think it’s great because it’s entertaining. That’s why I think PROJECT NIM is so good. Though it’s kind of hard, and it really is a little difficult at times, it’s still very entertaining.
Bob will be at Violet Crown this weekend for special Q&A’s so be sure to stop by and get the full story of PROJECT NIM.