People must have renounced, it seems to me, all natural intelligence
21 November 1973 - 10 March 2000
It's possible to write the words and to read them, but it's almost impossible to believe them. On 9 March we wrote that all the animals were well, that the sum was shining, and that it was a beautiful time at the Ranch. On March 10, it was raining, Nim was gone, and there was a deep sadness over the entire Ranch. We've lost a friend - someone we greatly loved, admired and treasured. We've lost a family member.
As I sat trying to write about Nim I was astonished at how difficult, even impossible it is to convey the depth of our sense of loss and sadness. In truth, there just aren't the words.
Nim was born at the Institute for Primate Studies at the University of Oklahoma to Pan and Carolyn. He was his motherís 10th baby, and was taken from her when he was only 2 weeks old. He was placed with a human family and raised as a human child, including wearing childrenís clothes. He spent his first 4 years in a sign language research program at Columbia University.
He learned and comprehended 300 signs, and made 2-, 3-, and 4-sign combinations. He was very intelligent, and is the chimp who was closest to making actual sign sentences. After 4 years, the Columbia research project lost its funding and Nim went back to the University of Oklahoma.
He spent the next 5 years at the OU Institute for Primates. Nim was the subject of 17 doctoral theses. He was about to become a lab chimp, facing isolation from other chimps for at least 6 months while in quarantine, then experimented on for life when Cleveland Amory and the Fund for Animals intervened on his behalf and arranged for Nim to live out his days at Black Beauty Ranch.
Shortly after Nimís arrival, Cleveland asked for a non-breeding female chimp to be a companion to Nim so Sally, a former circus performer, arrived. She and Nim were best of friends for almost 14 years. She died in March of 1997 at age 47, one of the oldest chimps in the United States. Nim was very unhappy and depressed when she died, and he spent a lot of time laying on her bed.
A private donor provided the money to redo the chimp house, and the renovations and expansion were completed only weeks after Sally died. Even though she never spent any time in the new facility, Chris Byrne, the ranch manager for the past 8 years, wanted her to be a part of it. So he had a hole drilled in one of the beams, and placed her ashes in the beam. The hole was then cemented over, and very simply and touchingly Chris printed in the cement "3-21-97 - Sally."
Chris investigated the chimps who were available to come live at the ranch and selected 3 whom he felt would make a good group with Nim.
Chris wanted the two males to become acquainted before the females arrived, so Midge, a 22-year-old male came here first. He had been a lab chimp from birth and had not spent much time interacting with people or with other chimps, so he had the least social skills of all the chimps. But he improved. Nim was very excited when he first saw Midge. He signed "friend" to Chris, clapped and indicted that Chris should open the door to let Midge in with Nim, and signed "friend" again.
Kitty is a 35-year old female. She was a lab breeder who had 14 babies, including 3 sets of twins. She likes to curl up in a barrel and play hide and seek. She is a good mediator.
Lulu Belle, a 33-year old female, was the last to arrive. Chris had arranged for Lulu Belle and Midge to spend 2 weeks together at the lab before he came here so they would at least know each other when she arrived. She is bulky, almost a miniature gorilla. She walks straight on her hind legs and has a sweet disposition. She and Nim developed a special bond.
Nim signed to the staff, although their knowledge of signs was much less than his. Mostly he signed for food such as bananas, oranges, apples, gum (a favorite of his), and drinks. His other favourite sign appeared to be the sign for play.
One day, Nim signed for water. The girl who was there told him, verbally, he should get the water in his enclosure. He apparently did not like this response, as he got some water in his mouth and then spit it at her. She told him that spitting at her was not a good thing, and Nim immediately signed "sorry." The spitting was not typical of Nim, as he is usually very well-mannered.
A few months ago, a woman who had been one of his teachers at the Columbia project came to visit Nim. She had not seen him for 20 years. The morning of the day she was to arrive, Chris asked Nim, verbally, if he remembered a woman named Joyce. Nim immediately signed her name, and continued to sign it all day until she arrived.
We are not certain, but we believe that Lulu Belle may have learned some signs from Nim. It is possible she realised that his signs result in food and that rather than depend on him to be the middle man she wanted to directly get in on a good thing.
As mentioned above, Lulu Belle and Nim developed a close bond. One day Midge was exhibiting stress behaviour, including throwing things. A plastic pail accidentally hit Lulu Belle. She apparently realised he did not intend to hurt her, as she did not react toward him. But she immediately went to Nim for comforting. Nim put his arms around her and hugged and comforted her.
We did some renovation work on the inside enclosure. The chimps used to enjoy sitting on a tire that was high enough for them to look into the kitchen area. Knowing that was not the most comfortable seat, we added a ledge that allows the chimps to sit and look into the kitchen in comfort. They find this of great interest, especially around 3:30 when they seem to want to remind us not to forget feeding time.
It is particularly rewarding to be in the chimp house around 4:30 in the afternoon - feeding time. After they are given their regular diet of fruit and vegetables, a brown paper sack of treats is prepared for each chimp. The contents changes daily, and includes such things as yogurt, a drink, fig newtons, gum, a licorice stick and a granola bar. The sounds the chimps make are fascinating - loud, anticipatory noises for the fruits and vegetables, happy, excited noises when they first hear the rustle of the brown bag being opened, and absolutely contented noises when they have their brown bags. It can best be equated to the roaring purr of a supremely happy cat. Each chimp has his or her favorite food, and they do trade with each other.
Nim loved a good time! In the early years, a lock on the chimp enclosure would occasionally be left unlocked. Nim would grab Sally and gleefully head for Chris and Mary's house. Chris said that one day Nim was crossing the yard, bearing down on him with a determined stride. Nim, of course, was pretty big and strong by that time. Chris (undoubtedly in dramatic fashion) went down on one knee, flung out his arms, and said "Nim!" Nim lumbered over, flung himself into Chris' arms for a hug, then pulled Chris and Sally into Chris' house. Nim's first interest was the refrigerator - he knew where the food was. And he was not to be dissuaded from enjoying the comforts of the house. So Mary and Chris kicked back, relaxed, and had a wonderful visit with Sally and Nim. Finally, after a good time was had by all, Nim and Sally would be coaxed back into their own home.
In the early years, Nim and Sally got out several times and always headed for Chris' house. For safety sake, security became tighter, and the chimps no longer got out. But Chris still chuckles fondly whenever he speaks of their good times together.
Chris and Nim had a very special bond. Having spent every day together for almost 10 years, Chris was the most constant person in Nim's life. He loved to help Chris, and whenever Chris was working in the chimp house he would ask Nim to hold a hammer or screwdriver for him. Nim always did so, waiting patiently to return it when it was again needed.
Nim was very polite and well-mannered. If occasionally he slipped (such as the time he spit when he did not get the water he had asked for), he would immediately sign "sorry" when told his actions weren't nice. He also had a very impish streak. He loved to tempt people with his treasures, making you think he was giving them to you. At the very last second he would snatch them back with a glint in his eye as if to say "Gotcha". As if to make up for it, he would again offer the treasure, only to snatch it back again.
Nim continued to sign after his arrival at the Ranch. His most-used signs seemed to be "drink", "gum", "banana", and "more". You dared not walk across the lawn with a soft drink can in your hand. Nim, as well as the other chimps, let it be known that they wanted some. And Chris' sternly-fixed eye let you know that if you were silly enough to let the chimps see your drink, they got some.
We celebrated Nim's birthday every year. Having been raised in a family, he knew he should blow out the candles on the cake. Unfortunately, he usually took so long to blow them out that Lulu Belle would snake her fingers through the enclosure and grab some cake before Nim started blowing. Little did we know that his birthday party last November would be his last.
On March 10 Nim died suddenly of a heart attack. He had been diagnosed as having a heart murmer last summer, but had been acting normally until his death.
Nim contributed so much to our lives. He had a tremendous ability to enjoy himself, and his happy, smiling face could not help but make others smile with him. And when highly pleased, his eyes would flash and his mouth would purse as he began hooting with happiness. It was a sound that delighted one and all.
He was obviously highly intelligent, communicative, kind, spirited, and nice. He got along extremely well with the other 3 chimps, and was the obvious leader. They were a loving group, and Nim and the females often hugged and groomed each other. Kitty was particularly close to Nim. She is a motherly type, and frequently comforts the others. Two years ago we had to anesthetize Nim for a root canal. We put him back (still asleep) in one side of their enclosure. The 3 chimps could see him, but were not allowed on his side until he awoke. Kitty was quite agitated until she was allowed in. She immediately went over and hugged him and checked to see he was okay.
Not unexpectedly, Kitty is taking Nim's loss the hardest of all the chimps. At first she seemed to be angry at everyone. But she has come around from that quite a bit, and everyone is making a point of spending a lot of time with her.
The chimp house is somewhat quieter these days. Nim leaves behind his closest animal friends: Kitty, Lulu Belle, and Midge. And Chris, his best human friend. And all of his other friends - too numerous to count. The employees and volunteers at the Ranch sorely miss Nim. His passing is mourned by the Fund For Animals employees and by all the people who worked with him at Oklahoma University and at Columbia University. We know they loved him dearly. And we are sure that everyone who has read Ranch of Dreams or visited the Ranch and learned Nim's story will be saddened by his passing.
Almost anyone who has ever had the privilege to work with or around chimps knows that it is impossible not to form a lifelong attachment to them. Nim seems to have had a particularly winning personality and captured the heart of everyone who met him. And it is with very heavy hearts that we bid him farewell.
Marion Probst, President of The Fund For Animals, is quoted as saying "Nim was not only the most famous animal under the care of The Fund for Animals, but was perhaps the most beloved. He communicated freely with our staff and visitors, and he told us about his likes and dislikes, his thoughts and feelings. We are confident that he not only died peacefully, but that he also lived peacefully."
Nim will be cremated and his ashes will be added to Sally's in a pillar of their outdoor enclosure. They will be together in death as they were in life. To the simple inscription "Sally March 21, 1997" will be added "Nim March 10, 2000".
This page last updated on: Sunday, 18 January 2004
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