‘Project Nim’: Bob Ingersoll Interview

Posted by on August 17, 2011 | Permalink

Project Nim – the must-see documentary of the year by director James Marsh – details the attempts of scientists to teach a chimpanzee (Nim Chimpsky) sign language. Primatologist Bob Ingersoll features in the documentary, and our resident expert on all things animal testing related, Alistair Currie, interviewed Ingersoll on his relationship with Nim, animal testing and his interest in animals.

Here he is in his own words:

Alistair: Did you have a particular interest in … other animals before you started [working with chimps]? What gave you that original interest?

Bob: You know, I don’t really know exactly. But I’m from Boston, Massachusetts, so I didn’t really have a lot of experience with animals, except maybe the family dog, let’s say. I had one interaction with one non-human primate once in 1960 – my grandfather went to a store that was like the first kind of department store in Boston called the Orbit, and they had a, what I thought was a chimp, but it was a capuchin monkey, actually, and he took me to the store to visit this chimp, and he interacted with it in a way which I’d never seen anyone interact with another animal. I was 6 years old. I guess that stuck with me because when I heard about the chimps – you know, my first encounter hearing about Washoe [one of the first chimps to be taught human sign language] – I immediately accessed that memory of my grandfather interacting with that capuchin. So in the back of my mind, I had something that I was able to access in order to allow myself to wonder about all the sorts of things that I ended up seeing for myself years later.

Alistair: Would you say you were more interested in what chimps taught us about ourselves, or what we could learn about chimps?

Bob: Well, both, I think, you know. And then at some point I realised that what we really need to be doing is everything we can to save as many of those chimps as we could. I think that ultimately, it didn’t take me a real long time after I got [to the chimp facility] to realise that chimpanzees were in a bad spot, at least in terms of captivity and that, you know, reading the literature even back then you realized that chimpanzees were spiralling downhill in terms of population, in terms of habitat destruction, and then, the split designation between chimps in captivity and in the wild didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. You know, a chimp in a cage is still a chimp. And so all those issues came up, you know, over that period of time.

Alistair: What do you think about experiments on animals?

Bob: [It’s] shameful that we still insist on keeping these dear friends of mine in such horrible conditions. As I have said over and over for many years, there is no reason to continue to subject these beautiful beings to such clearly wrong treatment. I hope that the GAPA [Great Ape Protection Act, a US political initiative to end chimpanzee experiments and re-home chimpanzees currently in laboratories] and cost-saving measures will be helped along by this film. It seems only logical that this is coming and the sooner the better.  I also believe it is our responsibility to do everything we can to get those chimps currently held in NIH or other government (USA) labs out now, not next week or next year.

I personally am not in favor of any animal research. No matter what the reason. Seems to me that more could be accomplished by funding clean water programs and vaccine programs all over the world with currently available medicine than is gained by animal research. The claim by the research and academic community that this research is saving lives is hard to understand while we already know that providing drugs already available might save millions of lives globally. So I think the money spent on animal research could be spent more wisely, and more lives would be saved and or improved by spending the research money in other ways. Clean water programs and the like. 

Alistair: What should happen to chimps in laboratories in the US now?

Bob: Those labs should be closed. The chimps should be placed in proper sanctuary and those should be funded until they are no longer needed, like I said, which will certainly not be in my lifetime.

Alistair: So just speaking about Nim as an individual – was there something special about him? Why do you think that the two of you had such a strong relationship?

Bob: Well, there certainly was something special about him because he was Nim, you know, and his personality was a rich, you know, and full-on individual. But I think all chimps are like that. I just think it was one of those things. You meet some people and you really like them and you meet some people and you really don’t like them. And Nim and I just happened to like one another. I knew about chimps somewhat. I gave him some freedom that he hadn’t probably had in his whole life, you know, I allowed him to be himself and allowed him to access his chimpanzee. … Like I said, one or two chimpanzees makes it very difficult to express their chimpanzeeness in a context under which that’s just not possible. So, I mean, like, I say in the film, chimpanzees, you know, are social animals. Two people or two chimpanzees together is not a social group—it’s just two, you know, and so that’s what I think …

Alistair: What did you learn from him? What did you get from the relationship?

Bob: Well, I got a bunch of great hugs. And I also learned that chimpanzees deserve respect just like humans deserve respect. And ultimately, all animals. You know, I wasn’t even a vegetarian before any of this started. And I’ve evolved in a way that you would expect, you know. Now I understand that animals – all animals – deserve the kind of respect that humans deserve for what they are, you know, from chimpanzees and orangs and all these non-human primates to your dog and to all the beings in our environment. I mean, it’s not just chimps now for me – it’s all the animals … farmed animals … the way we treat animals as humans, to me, it’s literally abhorrent. It bothers me that humans are just so damned arrogant.

We here at PETA urge you to go and see this movie at the earliest opportunity