Medical life: The tale of one chimp can teach us a lot about human cruelty

  • @jeremylaurance

Home from a holiday at the weekend to a story of bad parenting. No, nothing to do with the riots. We went to see Project Nim, the distressing but wonderfully told story of the chimp raised by humans in the Seventies, in a supposedly scientific experiment, to see if it was possible to teach another species language.

Like many others, I imagine, I felt as I left the cinema like signing up immediately as a supporter of animal rights.

The folly of the attempt to raise a wild animal as if human contact, plus a bit of old-fashioned schooling, were enough to domesticate it, has been much remarked on. The biting started when Nim was only a few months old and was bad enough to hospitalise a number of his, mainly female, carers.

For evidence of the harm that animals can do, we need look no further than Charla Nash, the 57-year-old US woman whose face transplant was unveiled last week, after her original features were ripped off during an horrific attack by her friend's pet chimp in 2009.

But what also struck me was the folly of expecting the young female researchers recruited by Professor Herbert Terrace, whose project Nim was, to maintain scientific objectivity while mothering Nim Chimpsky as if he was their own child.

Each became deeply attached to the chimp and each began to resent the sterile demands that the scientific process imposed. The emotional temperature was raised by the grand professor's habit of seducing his youthful recruits. All very Seventies.

Despite all this, Nim mastered the signs for scores of words and even managed to put them together in rudimentary sentences. He featured on TV and the front of the New Yorker magazine. Then suddenly, Prof Terrace pulled the plug. Alarmed by Nim's growing strength, he closed the project and sent Nim back to the Institute for Primate Research from whence he had come – little more than a jail. Briefly, Nim became a subject for medical tests – vaccines for hepatitis and HIV – before being rescued by an animal sanctuary where he lived out the rest of his days.

The failure of the experiment was confirmed when Prof Terrace recanted his earlier claim that Nim had learnt language. Instead, he said, he had learnt how to beg, mimicking his human

carers to get what he wanted. But what is undeniable, as the most consistent of his carers, Bob Ingersoll, makes clear is that there was "real communication" going on of a kind not seen with other animals.

Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher who has done more than most to champion animal rights, has highlighted the apalling suffering involved in factory farming, medical testing, zoos and the rest. "To change, we need to persuade the public to change their attitude to animals," he says.

Project Nim may help. Watching it you cannot but wonder at the casual cruelty meted out by homo sapiens to our closest relatives.