Man's best friend

Bob Ingersoll, during a recent visit to Boston, says of Nim: “He gave me . . . a purpose in life.’’ Bob Ingersoll, during a recent visit to Boston, says of Nim: “He gave me . . . a purpose in life.’’ (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / July 15, 2011

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This is a love story on top of a horror story.

First the love story. Bob Ingersoll fell at first sight for a chimpanzee named Nim.

Nim was riding in the back of a station wagon as it made its way up the driveway of the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Okla., in 1977. “I knew I could work with Nim,’’ Ingersoll said during a recent interview. “We’d heard about Nim for a couple of years.’’

What the Boston native had heard about was a disastrous experiment dreamed up by behavioral psychologists at Columbia University to see if an ape could communicate with humans through sign language if raised like a human child in a regular family.

“Project Nim’’ chronicles Nim’s existence during and after the failed experiment.

Nim’s full name was Nim Chimpsky, a playful version of Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor who’s one of the fathers of modern linguistics.

“They had no idea what they were doing. They misinterpreted Nim’s aggression. He never bit me once,’’ said Ingersoll, 57, who spent nine years with Nim over two different periods, about those involved in the experiment. “They thought they could train animals to think the way we do. Bats don’t think like humans because they’re bats. They process information like bats. You can’t domesticate wild animals. Attacks are going to happen eventually. It’s just our arrogance.’’

“Bob is a genuinely wonderful human being, and he emerges as the true hero of the story,’’ said Simon Chinn, producer of the film. “He has a big personality and a very big heart. He is someone who takes on causes and fights very hard for them.’’

Ingersoll, a pot-smoking Deadhead with shoulder-length silver hair, now lives in San Francisco with his second wife, Belle. In the mid-’70s, while an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Oklahoma, also located in Norman, he got the chance to spend time at the IPS with a few of the 40-odd chimps there. He immediately displayed an easy bond with them. Over time, says Ingersoll, owner Bill Lemmon was impressed enough to give him a key to the cages. “My life was changed, but I didn’t know it.’’

Despite his life out West, Ingersoll is all Boston. He was born in the Chelsea Naval Hospital, lived in Roxbury as a kid, and hung out with his friends in Fields Corner. Then he banged around the world, from Turkey to Japan and North Carolina, as a military brat - his father was a career enlisted man in the Air Force. He and Belle stay with his godmother in Quincy whenever he’s in town, He lives and dies for the Red Sox.

Ingersoll joined the Air Force after high school to become a maintenance crew chief for F-4 jets, but he had a motorcycle accident at a base in Florida. He was dragged 180 feet by a car and, after extended hospital care, left the service with a medical discharge.

He said he contracted hepatitis C through a blood transfusion in the hospital. His liver is damaged. Drugs and alcohol are part of his story, but he says he’s off everything today except pot. (Nim enjoyed an occasional beer or joint with Ingersoll at the IPS.) In all, Ingersoll would spend nine years with Nim, from 1977 to 1982 and 1996 to 2000, at IPS and the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, a sanctuary for abused animals, in Murchison, Texas, founded by the noted animal rights activist.

“Nim and I just clicked,’’ Ingersoll said. “He was my best friend.’’ Both had endured hard times, and together they found some happiness and peace. Meanwhile, the IPS was going bankrupt, and in 1982 Lemmon sold Nim, among other chimps, to New York University’s Laboratory for Experimentation and Surgery in Primates to be used in trials testing a new hepatitis C drug.

The conditions at the facility were horrid, and Ingersoll was furious that Nim would be tested at all. He went to the media about Nim’s predicament. He approached the Globe, and a reporter wrote a piece in 1982 about Nim’s travails. Additional news outlets picked up the story, and Ingersoll attracted other animal rights supporters.

Thanks largely to Ingersoll, Nim was withdrawn from the trials before he was tested and went west yet again - first back to the IPS for a few months and then to the Amory ranch, where he was the first and only chimp. He was lonely there, so Ingersoll took him out of his cage, walking with him and building trust. Nim hadn’t seen Ingersoll from 1982 to 1995, but recognized him, he says, when they met again and signed “play.’’

Ingersoll was not a popular figure at the ranch in the beginning. “Bob can also be difficult,’’ Chinn explains. “His approach worked very well in rescuing Nim from LEMSIP and less well in his relationship with Cleveland Amory.’’

That said, Ingersoll persuaded the ranch to acquire three chimps to join Nim. “The best thing for a chimp is another chimp, or two, or eight,’’ he said. Still, Nim died of a heart attack at 26 - half the normal life of a chimp.

For the past 11 years, Ingersoll has worked at Mindy’s Memory Primate Sanctuary in Newcastle, Okla. He visits the place regularly from San Francisco, and has become a national advocate for humane treatment of chimps. He found his cause but lost Nim: “He gave me meaning and a purpose in life.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at