Zan and Nim; Human Chimps

In the Idea Hive class, we have just recently finished reading “Half Brother” by Kenneth Oppel.  This is a book about a chimp who is taken from the wild, and placed in a human home to learn sign language.  The book talks about experiences that  the family, the scientists, the students, the chimp, and the world had because of this experiment.  In the book, the chimp Zan goes to live with the Tomlins, Richard, Sara, and Ben.  Mrs.Durnin had looked more into the book, and found out that there was a documentary that was very similar to the book.  It was called Project Nim.  So, when we finished the book, both Mr.Fisher & Mrs.Durnin got copies of the documentary, and both classes watched it.  ‘Half Brother’ was based on Project Nim, and so we looked at the similarities & differences between the movie and the book.


There were quite a few things that were similar in both the book and the movie.  Some of the characters and the way that they felt were the same.  For example, in the movie,  Nim didn’t like Wer, who was the first human man that he lived with.  In the book, Zan was not a very big fan of Richard, the father in the story.  There were students in the book, like Ryan, and in the movie, students like Laura.  Nim was very protective in the movie, just as Zan was in the book.  When someone was upset, or crying, the chimps would go up to them, hug, kiss and try to comfort them.   In both the book & the movie, the chimps were sent away, because although they were learning signs, they did not know language.  They didn’t know how to make sentences or use proper grammar.  This was a conflict in the book & the movie as some people said that it was a waste of money to be doing the project if they can’t learn language, while others thought it was completely worthwhile because of the connections that were clearly there, and the fact that they could very well learn sings.  Like in the book, the doctors both wanted to send the chimps to a lab to be tested on.  This is where we get into some differences in the book & movie.

In the book, the public learned about the how Zan might be send to a lab, and helped out, and were able to save Zan from going to the lab.  In the movie however, there was really only a few people who were trying to help Nim out.  One man, named Bob Ingersoll really cared about Nim, and worked really, really hard to try to keep Nim out of the lab.  Nobody except the press helped him out.  Unfortunately, unlike in the book, Nim was sent to a lab, and had many tests done on him before he was saved.  Nim was ‘saved’ if you could call it that, from the Lab by a man named Cleavland Amory.  Although Cleavland got Nim out of the lab, Nim’s life didn’t improve very much.  In the book, Zan ended up going to a sanctuary in Florida with many other chimps.  In the movie, Nim was taken to “Black Beauty Ranch” where he was the only chimp.  Nim grew extremely lonely and became pretty unhealthy.  He even ‘attacked’ his first owner Stephanie when she tried to go into his cage after not seeing him for so long.  It wasn’t until ten years later when Chris Burn bought the Black Beauty Ranch and he brought in more chimps to come and live with Nim.  Chris brought in Lulu and Mitch to come and live with Zan, where they lived together for five years.  Chris also allowed Bob to come onto the property and play with Nim.  This really improved Nim’s life.  In the book, when Zan went to the sanctuary, nobody was able to go and visit them, as there was no human contact.  Therefore, we didn’t know what happened to Zan in the end.  In the movie, we learned that Nim died at the age of 26 of a heart attack in 2002.


There were a lot of really happy experiences that happened in the movie.  One of the things that really made me happy was that unlike in the book, Nim didn’t have a lot of trouble leaving his first home.  He had no health problems, and seemed perfectly happy.  One of the characters that I really liked was Bob.  Bob never gave up on Nim.   He never stopped fighting for him, and in the end, he was able to really help Nim.  I was really glad when Chris Burns bought the ranch and Bob was able to visit Nim again after he had to stay away for so long because of the previous owners.  I was very happy when Mitch and Lulu came to live with Nim.  After being alone for so long on the ranch, he finally had some chimps to be around.

Project Nim had some pretty disturbing content to it too.  We learned what really happened to Nim, whereas in the book, it was mostly only the good things that were talked about.  In the movie, we learned about how Dr.Lemon’s facility was like a jail for the chimps.  There were cages, barbed wire, and the workers used a cattle prod on the chimps if they didn’t do what the workers wanted.  We learnt about how much of a traumatic change it was for Nim to go from living with humans to living with other chimps.  He wasn’t comfortable with them, and he suffered a lot.  He showed very little interest in anything, didn’t eat, and became very sick.  The movie also showed us how Nim wasn’t always a cute little chimp.  He bit and attacked people, and on one occasion, accidentally killed a dog!  The movie showed us a very different personality of the chimps.  One thing that really stuck in my mind was the fact that at the lab, the ‘doctors’ were testing things like hepatitis on baby chimps!  A little innocent chimp that can’t do anything to stop what is happening to them.  Although parts like this were hard to see, it showed us the reality of the project.

The movie gave us a lot of new information on the project.  In the very beginning, we learned that Nim’s mother Caroline, had six of her babies previously taken away from her in the same way Nim was.  We learnt that Nim got alcohol and marijuana from his caretakers in the movie, as it wasn’t unusual in the seventies.  When Nim wanted the drugs, he would do the three signs; stone, smoke, now.  We learned that Nim had 5-6 times the strength of a man, and would use that to his advantage if he was unhappy with something.  We learned about the chimp Lily, who Nim possibly had a baby with, and we learned about how Nim was all alone at certain points of the story.  Thankfully, he had Mitch and Lulu come live with him for five years before he died from a heart attack in 2002, at the age of 26.  The book Half Brother and the movie Project Nim taught us a lot about Nim’s story, and all the happy moments and hardships the chimp went through.  I didn’t only learn about Project Nim, but about testing on animals, life in the seventies, and so much more.  There are still a few questions in my head though.  Would the project have better results if Stephanie has worked with Nim on sign language more?  If she had been more strict with him, and taught him to be more like a human, would he have bit and attacked people?  Do you think there would have been a difference?  The research done before the book, the book, and the movie really taught myself and the whole class a lot, and I’m really glad we had the chance to do all of it.

One thought on “Zan and Nim; Human Chimps

  1. I agree with you I also liked bob I think that he was the only one Nim actually liked. In the book and the movie I dont think they should of been sent away at all. I think that it was so wrong to had put Nim in the cage and leave him by himself . I think that you had a really good post overall , good job , keep up the good work.

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