Nim and Jennie

Let’s face it: baby chimpanzee are adorable!!  Those big eyes, those silly ears, those gangly limbs….Just examine the following photographic evidence:

Who wouldn’t love to dress up one of these little guys in a pair of overalls and raise him just like a human baby?

The correct answer is YOU.  Despite the cuteness quotient, it is a very bad idea to attempt to raise a chimpanzee in a human home.  They may be undeniably charming as infants, but they mature more quickly than people and are much stronger and more destructive than your average toddler.  The truth is that anyone bringing a baby chimp into his home is simply asking for drama, and is likely to get a healthy serving of trauma to go with it.

This is amply demonstrated in a book I recently read, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human.  In it, author Elizabeth Hess chronicles the life of the titular ape who, born in the early 1970s, was taken from his birth mother after only a few weeks and placed into a human home in New York as part of an experiment designed to challenge linguist Noam Chompsky’s theory that language is inherent only to the human species.

Bizarre as this may sound, such “human- fostered ape” language experiments were not uncommon in the 1960s and 1970s.  But as Hess’ book clearly shows, these experiments frequently revealed more about their human participants’ ignorance than about a given ape’s ability to learn ASL vocabulary words or grammatical structures.  In Nim’s case, his caretakers were mostly well-intentioned, but they had no grasp of the emotional and cognitive complexity of a chimpanzee.  They simply did not understand that removing him from his mother and the companionship of other chimpanzees and repeatedly changing his living situation and daily routine would profoundly impact Nim’s psyche and behavior.  They did not predict that he might have abandonment issues, or that he would have difficulty integrating with other chimpanzees after years of exclusively human company.  It seems hard to believe, given how much we now know about chimpanzees’ inner lives, but as recently as 30 years ago people still viewed individual chimps as essentially interchangeable — and disposable — research subjects.

All of this is encapsulated in Hess’ narrative, but for those interested in reading more about the human (and simian) drama involved in this  kind of ape language experiment, I actually recommend a different book: Jennie, a fictionalized version of the stories of Nim, Washoe, Viki, and others.  Though it takes some factual liberties, I found Preston’s novel both more readable and more affecting than Hess’ chronicle.  In fact, I have recommended it to several people (including non-specialists) over the past several years, and have always received positive feedback.

So don’t be too upset that it’s best for everyone to keep adorable baby chimpanzees (or other primates) out of your home.  There is plenty of opportunity to house them on your bookshelf.

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