Barbara J King reviews Elizabeth Hess’ Nim Chimpsky for Bookslut; while she does recommend the book, it is not without reservations:
Kudo upon kudo has been heaped on Hess for this book, by luminaries of the literary and animal-welfare worlds alike. For the most part, I join with them. Nim Chimpsky tells a compellingly readable story, and Hess is smart enough to let the actions of the selfish and unfeeling, or well-meaning but uninformed, people in Nim’s life speak for themselves. There is no heavy-handed moralizing here.
Still, I wish Hess hadn’t harped so hard on chimpanzees as menacing (a word she uses). Young male chimpanzees are strong, prone to aggression, and not meant to live in Upper West Side brownstones or suburban mansions. They are certainly not meant to become attached to loving caretakers only to be separated from them, time and time again. In hindsight it’s impossible not to ask if anyone with power over Nim’s life understood that his increasing aggression stemmed more from human choices than from some kind of flawed chimpanzee temperament. For Lemmon in Oklahoma and for Terrace in New York, Nim was a means to various career-defined ends. I’m not saying that neither man cared for the chimpanzee; just that for them, Nim never, ever came first.
Heroes do populate this book. Bob Ingersoll is one: an OU student in the 1970s, he became a tireless advocate for Nim and for other of Lemmon’s chimps who met sad fates. Yet Hess could have emphasized how often Nim’s bad behavior was created, or at least exacerbated, by humans. Too many unfathomable decisions were made, even near the end of Nim’s life at the sanctuary. A Ranch rule forbade humans from going inside the ape cage, but look at what happened when Stephanie LaFarge visited: “Before anyone could stop her, LaFarge opened the cage door, slipped in, and locked the door behind her.” What was anyone connected with this incident thinking? (And why was the cage unlocked in the first place?)
Hess’s reconstruction of this surreal world unlocked for me surreal memories. I knew Nim and some of the other chimpanzees slightly, just as I knew Lemmon, Ingersoll and other players in this book slightly. I showed up at OU up as a fledgling anthropology graduate student in 1979, right on the verge of the chimp farm’s disintegration and the selling of chimpanzees to terrible places. I visited the farm, I met the chimpanzees, I sat in on the dissertation defense of the chimp-orgasm researcher. The farm was not the place for me: I wasn’t a pot-smoker, I didn’t fit in, and anyway I wanted to study wild primates instead of captive ones (and eventually did). Sadly, I was too green upon arrival to grasp the bigger picture of what was happening, or to feel the apes’ misery. That’s a regret I’ll have to live with.