5 Chimps Who Grew Up in Human Families


Nim Chimpsky Gets the Munchies

Laura-Ann Petitto, Nim Chimpsky
American neuroscientist Laura-Ann Petitto holds chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky during an animal language study conducted at Columbia University, New York, December 1975. A documentary about Nim Chimpsky was released in 2011. Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

In the early '70s, Columbia University researchers decided to perform intensive studies on chimpanzee language potential. To conduct the experiments, called Project Nim, they acquired a 2-week-old chimp ("Nim") from the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma. There, Nim's mother was tranquilized and the squalling baby was forcibly removed from the enclosure and plunked in the arms of a woman who took him back to her family in New York City.

The goal of the project was to raise Nim just like the other seven kids in the family to see how he'd respond, and to determine whether chimps could learn human language. Nim wore diapers and was even breastfed [source: NPR].

In just 60 days, the tiny chimp was climbing all over the house, often out of reach of his human caregivers. He learned some aspects of American Sign Language (ASL), working up to 125 signs, and could request drinks, food, hugs and playtime. He even smoked marijuana with the family and learned to use sign language to request the drug [source: Hess].

As Nim aged, he became aggressive, hitting and biting family members and researchers, but unlike a human child, he couldn't be taught to set aside those behaviors. He was cycled through a series of caregivers and ended up at a primate facility, where he was terrified of the other chimps due to his human upbringing [source: Rapold].

Nim eventually wound up at a home for abused animals, where he befriended another chimp and was heartbroken when she died. At the same time, he was very attached to two story books that he constantly "read": one was a children's book with a section on learning ASL and the other was a book about himself. Nim died of a heart attack at age 26, far removed from the family that first cared for him [source: Hess].