Elizabeth Hess: What We Can Learn About Language and Animal-Human Interaction From a Chimpanzee
Journalist and author Elizabeth Hess has long been fascinated with animals, and in the book for which she has become particularly well-known, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, she delves deeply into one of the most noted research experiments conducted in animal-human interaction.
Her book tells the true and compelling story of Nim Chimpsky, the famous chimpanzee 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 hypothesis 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 child. With great detail and empathy, Elizabeth chronicles both the project's successes and failures while recounting Nim's odyssey from a 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 also gives insight into Nim's legendary charm, mischievous sense of humor and keen understanding of human beings as he learns to use 150 characters of American Sign Language, and in his last years how he even became a tutor to other fellow chimps, teaching them aspects of basic sign language.
In choosing such a story to write about, Elizabeth says: "The main criteria for me was I wanted an animal who had had a really formative impact on the people around him or her. And I wanted an animal whose story had never been told."
Nim Chimpsky, experts say, may be the only notable book exploring linguistics and primatology. "Nim had a vocabulary. He learned all these signs, and he could communicate with them," says Elizabeth, who did not get the chance to meet Nim before he died in 2000 at age 26, but spent five years afterwards immersing herself in his life for the book.
Unfortunately, she reports, as the research experiment with the primate progressed, Nim became too destructive, bit one too many handlers, and later the four-year project became so poorly funded that there was no option but to remove him from a human home environment back his original primate institute.
A resident of Spencertown, NY, Elizabeth is also author of the book, Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats and Everyday Heroes at a County Animal Shelter, and serves on the board of Equine Advocates, in addition to having served on several other boards of directors related to animal welfare and awareness, including Art for Animals, the Mayor's Alliance for New York Animals, Animals and Society Institute, and the Columbia Greene Humane Society.
As a journalist, her work has also appeared in such publications as the Village Voice, Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New York Observer, Art in America, Art News, and Ms. Magazine.
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