In November 1973, Nim was born at the Institute for Primate Studies (IPS) at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He was just two weeks old when he was taken from his mother and sent to Columbia University in New York City to be the subject of a sign language acquisition study overseen by psychology professor, Dr. Herb Terrace, who sought to prove that Nim could learn to communicate with sign language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Nim was moved into a New York City townhouse and adopted by a human family where he would be the subject of a nearly 4 year long study measuring his acquisition of American Sign Language.
After Dr. Terrace ended his project in 1977, Nim was sent back to IPS in accordance with a prior arrangement made between Dr. Terrace and IPS director, Dr. William Lemmon. During this time, Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn sign language, lived at IPS. Washoe came to Oklahoma in 1970 with Roger Fouts—a psychology graduate student of Drs. Beatrice and Allen Gardner, who were the originators of “Project Washoe”, which took place at the University of Nevada in Reno. Washoe was sent to Oklahoma so that the Gardners could continue working with other chimps. Dr. Terrace wanted to replicate the Gardners' work using Nim. Nim would now be used as a pawn in the world of science.
I first met Nim in September 1977 when he was sent back to IPS. Nim's return to Oklahoma was a big event which included television crews as well as several graduate students from Dr. Terrace's project. During this time, I was a graduate student of Roger Fouts who worked within the psychology department at the University of Oklahoma. I worked with Dr. Fouts as well as with the chimps at IPS, including Washoe. While at IPS, I was allowed to rehabilitate Nim from his experience in New York. Nim and I became very close within the next few years which grew into a lifelong friendship.
Nim and Bob at the University of Oklahoma in 1977 following Nim's return from New York
In 1982, IPS could no longer afford funding, resulting in Nim and the other chimps being sold to the Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), a New York University research facility. I immediately called the press in an effort to free Nim and the other chimps. Cleveland Amory purchased Nim in 1983 from Dr. Lemmon and Nim was relocated to Black Beauty Ranch in Texas. I visited Nim one afternoon and by the time I reached his enclosure, he was signing 'Bob', 'out', 'key'. I did not like how Nim was living in a small cage in isolation, so I asked Mr. Amory to expand his enclosure and to get Nim a companion. A year after purchasing Nim, Mr. Amory purchased a companion for him from Dr. Lemmon named Sally who was an ex-circus chimp.
In 2000, Nim passed away from a heart attack at Black Beauty Ranch where he lived for 17 years. He was 26 years old. In the years following his passing, several important things have happened. Elizabeth Hess wrote a book titled Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, which inspired a documentary film to be made by academy award winning producer Simon Chinn and director James Marsh, entitled Project Nim.