Project Nim opens September 9 at the Circle Cinema, 10 S. Lewis Ave. Bob Ingersoll will do question-and-answer sessions following the Sept.9 and 10 screenings of the film, which begin at 7:30 p.m.
Today in Norman, Oklahoma, if you take Lindsey Street five miles east of the bustling University of Oklahoma campus, you’ll find several miles of rural countryside that’s lately become the site of freshly-built McMansions. At 60th street, the luxury homes occupy land that was once the site of the University’s Institute for Primate Studies (IPS). Though the research facility was operating 30 years ago, today you’d be hard-pressed to find any physical clue that the Institute—which housed and studied such famed chimps as Washoe, Lucy, and Nim Chimpsky—ever existed. Yet the IPS was once the epicenter of the primate behavioral studies movement that dominated the 1970s.
The Institute was founded in 1965 by a clinical psychologist named Dr. William Lemmon, who studied the behavior and communication of chimpanzees in an effort to better understand the origin and nature of human communication. Around the same time, at the University of Nevada, Reno, scientists Allen and Beatrix Gardner adopted a newborn chimp named Washoe. With Dr. Lemmon consulting, Washoe was raised by the Gardners as a human and became the first animal to be taught American Sign Language (ASL).
Washoe’s main caregiver and ASL teacher was Roger Fouts, a UNR grad student who joined Project Washoe in 1967. Three years later, the Gardners terminated the Washoe experiment in favor of studying and teaching new chimps. Under Allen Gardner’s instructions, Fouts and Washoe relocated to Norman, where Washoe was finally exposed to her own species. Fouts finished his Ph.D. and shortly after took a job as a psychology professor. Along with Dr. Lemmon, Fouts oversaw the Institute’s research through its golden years.
The IPS housed 23 chimps (give or take a few, depending on the time period) and was staffed by a handful of employees and student research assistants. One of these assistants was Bob Ingersoll, a long-haired grad student who took one of Fouts psychology courses and shortly thereafter began working at the IPS. Ingersoll’s main task was to interact with the chimps: feed them, entertain them, and, most importantly, communicate with them using sign language. Ingersoll developed a lifelong passion for primates, and today he’s part of a rescue operation—dubbed the “Secret Network”—that discreetly relocates displaced primates using a far-reaching network of animal researchers and activists.
Recently, Ingersoll drew attention as the unwitting hero of Elizabeth Hess’s nonfiction book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human and the subsequent documentary adaptation Project Nim. The film features a not-so-flattering depiction of the IPS.
After an idyllic upbringing by New York intellectuals, where he was treated with the kind of attention and reverence lavished on an only child, Nim Chimpsky was shipped back to his birthplace in Norman, and, like Washoe, forced to live among apes after a lifetime of human interaction. Dr. Lemmon used shock prods to control the apes, and housed them in primitive, prison-like cages.
Speaking to me over the phone, Ingersoll described his years at the IPS as a mixed bag. He loved the animals, but didn’t necessarily agree with their living conditions.
“Their lives were about living in those cages. Although [the apes weren’t] alone, it still looked like a prison, it still was pretty harsh. Like, ‘Holy cow, this is hard. I’m glad I don’t have to live in there,’” he recalled. “That’s one of the reasons why my main function, at least in my head, was to get as many chimps out of the cage, and out on walks, and into trees, and out on grass as I could.”
This attitude led to Ingersoll’s befriending of Nim Chimpsky. In the film, Ingersoll is portrayed as the lone beacon of hope in a nasty, oppressive environment run by an increasingly dictatorial Dr. Lemmon.
In 1980, Fouts chose to leave Norman and take a job at Central Washington University. In his memoir Next of Kin, Fouts recalls:
“In June 1980 I accepted a tenured position as Professor of Psychology at CWU. The dean of Oklahoma’s graduate school was aghast when I told him the news. ‘Where?’ he kept saying, as if he hadn’t heard me the first time. After urging me to stay, he promised that Oklahoma would build me a proper facility in a year or two.”
This promise is an indicator of just how much OU believed in the IPS. However, the University’s perception of the IPS changed drastically as the reverberations of a magazine article began to affect Animal Language Acquisition projects around the country. A psychology professor at Columbia University named Herb Terrace had been the brainchild behind Project Nim, but over the years he grew cynical of the experiment’s perceived success. In 1979, he published an explosive story in Psychology Today entitled “How Nim Chimpsky Changed My Mind,” where he declared the Nim experiment and all others like it a failure. Terrace claimed that the apes had not truly learned sign language, but rather had closely mimicked their trainers’ signs in accordance with what produced the desired result. People like Fouts and the Gardners hotly contested this assertion and accused Terrace of sloppy science, both in how he conducted the Nim experiment and how he came to his conclusion.
These objections mattered little; as Terrace’s story made the rounds, funding was cut left and right to various primate studies programs. OU soon followed suit. Dr. Lemmon and the University soon washed their hands of the Institute for Primate Studies, and in 1982, all of the Institute’s primates were sold off to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), where most of them were used as test subjects for human vaccines.
After the disintegration of the IPS, Ingersoll became a vocal animal rights activist. He succeeded in saving Nim from LEMSIP after the threat of unflattering lawsuits, and has spent the better part of the last three decades assisting in the rescue and placement of similarly threatened apes.
You’ll find no one angrier at OU’s abandonment of the chimps than Ingersoll.
“They don’t even wanna talk about it.” He said that even with the publicity from the film and book, both of which feature the IPS prominently, no one from the University has expressed any interest in openly discussing the IPS’s legacy.
“It’s a stick-your-head-in-the-ground, ostrich kind of approach,” he vented. “Negative publicity is negative publicity and they don’t wanna have anything to do with that. They’d rather talk about, ya know, football.”