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Nim Chimpsky

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Chimpsky

Nim Chimpsky (1973-2000) was a chimpanzee who was taught sign language and raised as if he was a human as part of an experiment to see if a chimpanzee could be taught to communicate with humans. Chimpsky's name was a play on the name of professor Noam Chomsky, who believed that only humans were able to communicate with each other- the goal of the experiment was to prove Chomsky wrong.

In the late 1970s, when Chimpsky lived on the Delafield Mansion at the campus of Columbia University, Herbert Terrace, the founder of the Nim project, allowed the Children's Television Workshop to film a number of inserts for Sesame Street featuring Chimpsky. Chimpsky was frightened at first by the lights and cameras, but eventually went about his usual business for the cameras.

In 1979, Terrace published a report on the Chimpsky project: despite Chimpsky's vast vocabulary and the fact that he was able to teach a human how to use sign language, Terrace believed he was simply mimicking what the humans taught him and conceded that Chomsky was right.

Chimpsky was sold to the New York University Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates in 1982, but he was soon freed due to public protest -- including some former Sesame Street viewers who had seen Chimpsky on the show. Henry Herrman, an attorney who believed in Nim's intelligence, planned to sue on Chimpsky's behalf and have Chimpsky testify to prove his intelligence. Herrman commented, "Allowing this to happen to Nim is like selling Bambi for dog food. How would this play on Sesame Street?"

Chimpsky was freed without having to testify before a court and lived out the rest of his life on the Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas. Among his most prized possesions in Murchison was a Sesame Street book featuring a section on sign language.

Sources

  • Hess, Elizabeth. Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. New York: Bantam Books, 2008.
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