Why is Nim Chimpsky’s Story So Heartbreaking?

As ridiculous as it sounds, I was moved by this review of Nim Chimpsky’s biography: he was taken from his chimpanzee mother not long after birth and became the first chimpanzee to be reared by humans in order to prove/disprove linguist Noam Chomsky’s theories on human language acquisition. When the study was over, he was sent to various research facilities until he finally ended up at a sanctuary for formerly caged animals.

Here’s a passage that reminded me, of all things, of the character of Elijah (the chimp who lives with Cameron Diaz and John Cusack’s characters) in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH:

There was a children’s book all about Nim while he was in New York, basically a photo book, and Nim kept his one copy of this book safe, even though chimps tend to wreck everything. He would bring it down and show the other chimps, then bring it back to his bunk and keep it under his sleeping area so that no one could destroy it. He would just look at pictures of his New York City family, and himself, over and over again.

He had a family, once. And then–no more.

I can’t decide which is more painful, the memory of his family, or the fact that he had pictures to remind himself of that time? How human is that?

2 thoughts on “Why is Nim Chimpsky’s Story So Heartbreaking?

  1. Jo MacD on

    Hi – I saw your post on Momocrats and wandered over here.
    This has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever read! Ever since I learned that chimps are 99.97% genetically identical to humans, I’ve been quietly horrified by the way we treat them (I’m pretty sure I have relatives less human than that!)
    Language studies seem to indicate that a young chimp acquires language and communication skills to about the level of a 2yo child – and they certainly appear to relate to each other like 2yo’s! I think, if they really have to be in captivity, then we should give them the same care and respect we would give a 2yo child. Now admittedly that sometimes isn’t much, sometimes we humans treat our kids with less care than chimp parents, but that’s what I think we should aspire to. Sigh…

  2. Jo McD,
    Thanks for the visit. And yes, I agree with you. The more I read about chimps, the more I become aware of how actively I have to work to suppress the dignity and free will of other animals. It gets very uncomfortable very quickly.

    What’s worse are these kinds of details: chimps used for HIV/AIDS testing, and in *crash tests* of cars. Aaack! Not feeling so proud of humans after reading about that.

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