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Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human Hardcover – February 26, 2008

4.0 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In what is surely one of the most memorable and intelligent recent books about animal-human interaction, Hess (Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter) tells the story of Nim Chimpsky, who in the 1970s was the subject of an experiment begun at the University of Oklahoma to find out whether a chimp could learn American Sign Language—and thus refute Noam Chomsky's influential thesis that language is inherent only in humans. Nim was sent to live with a family in New York City and taught human language like any other child. Hess sympathetically yet unerringly details both the project's successes and failures, its heroes and villains, as she recounts Nim's odyssey from the Manhattan town house to a mansion in the Bronx and finally back to Oklahoma, where he was bounced among various facilities as financial, personal and scientific troubles plagued the study. The book expertly shows why the Nim experiment was a crucial event in animal studies, but more importantly, Hess captures Nim's legendary charm, mischievous sense of humor, and keen understanding of human beings. This may well be the only book on linguistics and primatology that will leave its readers in tears over the life and times of its amazing subject. (Mar. 4)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Nim Chimpsky was born in a captive chimpanzee colony in 1973. Named as a play on Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist whose theory that language was a uniquely human trait the researchers hoped to disprove, Nim was to be raised in a human family and taught American Sign Language. This study on how language is acquired by humans would challenge the idea that only humans use language and blur or erase the line between human and nonhuman. But the study also created a chimpanzee with a foot in both worlds, neither fully chimp nor fully human, which further created a challenge for all of Nim’s caretakers and Nim’s own later salvation. Journalist Hess has written an affecting biography of one of the stars of primate research, from his beginnings as a two-week-old infant raised in a New York brownstone, through his various stays in research centers, his movement to a medical research facility, and his final home, at Cleveland Amory’s animal sanctuary, Black Beauty Ranch. Nim’s story is a must for all libraries. --Nancy Bent

Meet Nim Chimpsky
Larger images open in a new window. (Photo credits, in order: Herbert Terrace, Herbert Terrace, Courtesy of the Fund for Animals)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam (February 26, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553803832
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553803839
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #536,984 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By W. Benesch on November 10, 2009
Format: Paperback
It appears that Ms. Hess failed to check with the all participants of Project Nim for accuracy. The information about Delafield is both inaccurate and the time frame of those in the house is terribly incorrect. The initial move involved 4 people, Laura, Walter, Amy, and Andrea (who is never mentioned). The author states: "Terrace hired Amy Schachter and Walter Benesch (this reviewer), a couple who had occasionally worked with Nim over the past year and a half. Terrace invited them to move into Delafield, where they would share a bedroom (120)." This is not only false but liable. I was (a volunteer - not hired) moved into the room over the kitchen and Amy moved into a room on the 3rd floor. They were not a couple and did not meet each other until shortly before the move to Delafield. She also has the incorrect age for me. I worked as a youth service worker for the City full time and did not have his degree in social work as stated. I became involved in the project through his graduate work in anthropology, when Ralph Holloway referred him to Terrace. When I left the project it was to obtain a degree in social work.

Walter is described as "had hard work to keep ahead of the chimp." That is not so. Hess says that "Benesch would dutifully replace it (locks) with a new and more complex system." He never replaced a single lock. Likewise he never experienced the throwing of feces and other extreme behavior described while Nim was a Delafield with the one exception of the tantrum described below.

On page 124, she has Bob Johnson living in Delafield at the same time as Benesch. Again this is false information. Bob did not move in until Walter had left for more graduate work at Boston University. It appears the author did not read Dr.
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Format: Hardcover
To keep this short and sweet, I received this book in the mail yesterday morning and finished all 300+ pages by last night. I could not put it down. It really touched my soul. I always considered myself an animal lover, but after reading this tragic story there is no doubt in my mind that animals really do have personalities, emotions and souls. Shame on people who treat them as if they were worthless and disposable. Although I found myself crying during various chapters in the book, I am so glad I read it because it really opened my eyes. It makes me want to get involved in animal rights! What a great tribute to such a wonderful soul that was Nim Chimpsky.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a wonderful biography of Nim, a signing chimp, but it also serves as a study of the sometimes blurred boundaries between what it means to be an "animal" and what it means to be human. Elizabeth Hess has done an extraordinary job of unraveling Nim's story and presenting it in a lucid and compelling manner. She makes the story, the science, and the learnings from Nim's life accessible to the reader.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I knew immediately that this was going to be a heart-breaker. How could it not be when we are told in the first pages about the birth of the chimp later known as Nim, and the fact that he was snatched from his mother ten days later. This story could not have, and does not have, happy endings for the chimpanzees or for any of the people involved with them.

As the author makes clear a number of times throughout the text, using captive animals in laboratory experiments and loving them as pets are two entirely different things. And so the problem with this book, if one wants to quibble, is the dichotomy of telling Nim's story from a scientific, controlled point of view versus telling the story of Nim Chimpsky, an animal who drew people to him by his sweet, take-no-prisoners nature. The author tries to have it both ways, albiet leaning heavily to the animals-as-loving-pets side. (My favorite part was picturing Nim Chimpsky and his beloved friend Sally Jones on the lam, walking hand-in-hand towards a caretaker's home "as if he thought they had been invited for dinner".)

Nevertheless, this was a fascinating book with characters coming and going at a very quick pace one wouldn't expect. There were so many that at the end of the book when Elizabeth Hess gives updates on all of the people who played a part in Nim's life, I could barely remember who they were and several times consulted the Index to jolt my memory.

There have been more than a few books and articles written about Nim Chimpsky over the years, plus lots of other books detailing the hazards of trying to humanize non-humans, but they are by their very nature extremely sad stories and this is probably the last one I will be able to read. Fortunitely, it was very well written and thorough to a fault so I won't feel that I am missing anything ...
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One of the real tragedies of Nim Chimpsky is that he and the other chimps profiled in the book have more intelligence, honesty, and "humanity" than the so-called scientists entrusted with their care. What an indictment--not only of medical testing and laboratories who are now the whipping boys of animal activists--but of the "social" scientists who believed that their experiments were any less traumatic or inhumane for the chimps than the biologists with their Hepatitis C vaccines! Out of all of the psychologists, students, and volunteers in Project Nim, only a hand full displayed the loyalty, perservance, compassion, and integrity of Nim and his fellow chimps. This book calls into question all of our preconceived notions of what species is the most advanced and enlightened. My money is on the chimps.
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