Television

HBO Documents the Tragic Tale of Lucy, the Chimp Raised Like a Human

An experiment to see if nurture could overcome nature did not end well.

|

Lucy the Human Chimp. Available Thursday, April 29, on HBO Max.

A couple of weeks ago on the distant shores of satellite TV, I stumbled upon an old favorite of mine, Congo, a 1995 film about a safari in search of King Solomon's fabled diamond mines that runs afoul of a tribe of killer chimpanzees. (Back in the day, it scared a visiting granddaughter catatonic and I had my first full night's sleep in weeks.) The movie's MacGuffin was a sweet, lab-raised chimp who could use sign language to talk through a computer doo-hickey—and who knew the mine's location.

I'm guessing the people behind Congo knew something about Lucy, a very real chimp who had her 15 minutes of fame back in the 1970s—book, Life magazine story, episode of Wild Kingdom, everything but her own reality show. Lucy, raised by a (human) psychologist almost from birth, also learned sign language, not to mention gin-and-tonics—she squeezed the lime with her teeth—along with Playgirl magazine and all the other stuff that makes humanity so special. (Though when Lucy was taken to a drive-in showing of Planet of the Apes, she was merely bored.)

But when she turned rambunctious upon reaching puberty, Lucy was shipped to a chimp reeducation camp in the Gambian jungle, where she had a difficult time of it and was eventually killed by poachers.

The poignant and sometimes disturbing HBO Max documentary Lucy the Human Chimp updates Lucy's tale, and even more so that of Janis Carter, the human companion who accompanied her back to Gambia for a three-week acclimation trip that stretched into forever. The program inevitably raises some issues about human anthropomorphism and scientific indifference to animal welfare. But mostly it's a meditation on the difficulties attendant upon falling in love across species lines, something already touchingly familiar to anybody who saw Willard.

Carter was a University of Oklahoma grad student hired to feed Lucy and clean out her cage. Carter was warned not to attempt any BFF stuff; Lucy was already showing some aggressive tendencies, jumping through closed windows and even breaking out to loot the refrigerator of the neighbors next door. Sticking a finger into her cage was less likely to be regarded as a friendly gesture than as an offer of a fast-food sample.

Moreover, there was a daunting intellectual gap between the two; Lucy knew 120 words of English, apparently well beyond the vocabulary of the average University of Oklahoma grad student. When Lucy grew frustrated by the slow speed of Carter's signing, she repeatedly flashed the signal for "stupid." Nonetheless, their long afternoons together eventually developed into a friendship. Carter put her back against the cage and allowed Lucy to groom her for vermin; then they reversed positions.

Lucy had been snatched from her mother, a performer in a ramshackle Florida roadside zoo, when she was just two days old and raised as if she were human, a calculated attempt to sort out nature from nurture in chimp behavior. At home, she slept on a Beautyrest mattress, ate oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, then washed it down with coffee and Tang. That made her relocation into a jungle camp nearly impossible. There she lost weight and great patches of her hair fell out.

Carter made the flight to Gambia just to help with a three-week transition, but her alarm at Lucy's condition made her postpone return to the United States for two weeks, then another three months. In reflective moments, when she wasn't eating grimy leaves and twigs from the jungle floor and grunting in pretend-pleasure to convince Lucy that this stuff was food, Carter wondered what she was doing, missing classes and rent checks back home. "I had a dog," she mused. "I had a boyfriend." As her funds ran low, she moved out of a hotel room into a jungle treehouse. In an even more profound inversion, when she took Lucy and three other rescue chimps out of the camp and onto a jungle island, Carter slept in a cage ("I don't think anyone told me about the leopards") while the chimps spent the night on the roof—unleashing a rain of excreta onto her through the bars whenever they heard a scary noise, which was practically all night long.

Years passed. Lucy was not acting much more like a chimp, but Carter was. She let her correspondence with the outside world lapse and spoke little English other than frequent and futile repetitions of "Lucy—food—eat." Carter lost all track of time aside from the seasons and never even thought about returning to the outside world. "I don't know if I ever became a chimp, so to speak," she says in an interview taped for the documentary. But she sure takes a long time to answer.

When six years passed, the chimps themselves let Carter know—unambiguously and heartbreakingly—that it was time for her to leave. Even then, she just moved across the river and continued watching them from afar. Today, more than four decades later, her hair slack and gray, she still sleeps in her old cage on the island, tending a steady stream of rescue animals. Nature vs. nurture remains an open question for chimps, and perhaps for their human minders as well.

NEXT: Did Politics Ruin the Oscars?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Is it just me, or did anyone else detect a faint note of Glenn Garvin not respecting Ms Carter’s life choices

    1. She can be a chimpanzee if she chooses to identify as one! Justice!

      1. Making money online more than 15$ just by doing simple work from home. I have received $18376 last month. Its an easy and simple job to do and its earnings FDF S are much better than regular office job and even a little child can do this and earns money. Everybody must try this job by just use the info
        on this page…..VISIT HERE

      2. Making money online more than 15$ just by doing simple work from home. I have received $18376 last month. Its an easy and simple job to do and its earnings are SDW much better than regular office job and even a little child can do this and earns money. Everybody must try this job by just use the info
        on this page…..VISIT HERE

  2. Probably everyone in this story, including the chimp, was a voter!
    Or a congresscritter.

    1. My real time work with face book I am making over $2000 a month operating low maint­enance. I continued h­earing distinctive people divulge to me how an lousy lot cash they can make on line so I selected to research it.ERf All topics considered, it become all legitimate and has without a doubt changed my life. For more statistics visit below site here…..>>> Home Profit System

  3. Moreover, there was a daunting intellectual gap between the two; Lucy knew 120 words of English, apparently well beyond the vocabulary of the average University of Oklahoma grad student. When Lucy grew frustrated by the slow speed of Carter’s signing, she repeatedly flashed the signal for “stupid.” Nonetheless, their long afternoons together eventually developed into a friendship. Carter put her back against the cage and allowed Lucy to groom her for vermin; then they reversed positions.

    I don’t know if this was the particular case, but I recall a chimp or gorilla that a researcher had claimed knew ‘sign language’ and became a media darling, but other researchers were highly skeptical of her methods. They noted that she was essentially throwing out unfavorable results and keeping good ones, allowing her to claim a high vocabulary and human-like interactions.

    1. “They noted that she was essentially throwing out unfavorable results and keeping good ones…”

      In other words, Science!

      1. CORONA IS BIG THREAT OF THE CENTURY BUT LOCKDOWNS BEFORE CHRISTMAS REALLY HELPS BIG TECH ONLINE SALES AND LARGE CORPORATIONS LIKE WALMART WILL HAVE MASSIVE SALES! BUT VIRUS SCAM dft EXPERTS SAY SMALL BUSINESS MUST STAY CLOSED OBEY SHEEP! RESISTANCE IS FUTILE YOU MUST BE ASSIMILATED! TO OVERCOME THESE DIFFICULTIES AND MAKE FULL USE OF THIS HOSTAGE PERIOD, FOR MORE DETAIL VISIT THE GIVEN LINK … READ MORE

    2. Golly. Is the chimp a climate researcher at government now? They favor that approach as well.

      1. Yeah, I recall reading an article on it like, 15 years ago. The researcher would sign with the animal, and when the animal signing was non-sensical, she’d dismiss the results because the chimp (or gorilla) was being obstinate/bratty/tired etc.

        1. I saw that episode of Law and Order too…

          1. Most of us want to have good income but don’t know how to do that on Internet there are a lot of methods to earn huge sum,MOi but whenever Buddies try that they get trapped in a scam/fraud so I thought to share with you a genuine and guaranteed method for free to earn huge sum of money at home anyone of you interested should visit the page. I am more than sure that you will get the best result best Of Luck for the new Initiative. Go to website……-Go to this link

    3. Oh shit, I just remembered, this was not the case, it was Koko The Gorilla. That was the case.

      1. Maybe Sarah, the chimp that communicated via stick-up plastic icons on a board?

  4. “Years passed. Amy was not acting much more like a chimp, but Carter was.”

    Who is Amy?

    1. Amy Carter????

      1. Not, “Looks like a Chimp,” UA.

    2. Amy was the gorilla in Congo. I think that was the cause of the error.

    3. Amy Fisher. The one that lusted over Joey Buttafuoco.

  5. Who’s Amy?

    1. Once in love with Amy,
      Always in love with Amy.

  6. Who the hell is Amy?

    1. Who the Hell is Alice! /Oktoberbest signing

      CB

  7. In Congo, it wasn’t chimp but a gorilla that was brought along on the rescue mission.

  8. Lucy knew 120 words of English, apparently well beyond the vocabulary of the average University of Oklahoma grad student.

    Is Glenn Garvin a Kirkland sock?

  9. Damn! And I thought horse girls were crazy.

    1. Now, let’s not kinkshame ponygirls.

  10. The lesson appears to be that the evolution from monkey to man is / was very long, hard, and may not be repeatable; but the devolution back to monkey is shockingly easy and quick to fall into.

    1. Yes, this! The 6 Jan 2021 episode of trumpanzees gone apeshit, lusting after replacing democracy with mobocracy, demonstrated that VERY well!

      1. The shrieking and throwing feces on TV was the clincher.

    2. the devolution back to monkey is shockingly easy and quick to fall into

      Obligatory

      1. Really thought you were going to go with an, “Are we not men?”, clip there.

        1. I could have gone with the Jay and Silent Bob Planet of the Apes scene, but I used that last week.

          1. Satisfaction!

    3. “but the devolution back to monkey is shockingly easy and quick to fall into.”

      Monkeys have tails. Chimps are apes, not monkeys. New world monkeys have prehensile tails which can wrap around branches and aid in climbing. By the way, whales are mammals, not fish. True fact.

  11. Is it really a tragic tale if it makes me laugh?

  12. Speaking of nature vs. nurture, did anyone watch the Greta Thunberg documentaries on PBS last night? I didn’t see all of it, but came off feeling sorry for her at some points.

  13. Terrible things happen with people who try to raise wolves as pets. They all say the same thing: he was fine for the first few years, but then, all of a sudden, he changed. He turned on me!

    There’s a big difference between wild animals and domesticated animals. Domestication basically boils down to cross breeding complacent animals that never fully mature psychologically into adults. Because domesticated animals never really mature, they are more docile like children.

    An adult wolf will not accept your rules about where it can or can’t shit, where it can or can’t sleep, what it can or can’t eat, who it can or can’t bite, etc. They only form packs in the wild so long as the alpha male and alpha female can keep the others under control. That doesn’t always last very long because adults want to assert themselves and make their own rules.

    Wolf puppies look and act like domesticated dogs, with their floppy ears, and their desire to impress you and seek your approval. Once wolf puppies hit puberty, the baby features like floppy ears disappear, and all that approval seeking behavior goes out the window. Being an adult is about no longer seeking the approval of a parental figure before you make every basic decision about where you sleep, what you eat, if you eat, whether you have sex, etc.

    If I remember the story right, this chimp’s problems started with puberty, too. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see that wild primates are subject to the same processes as everythnig. You know what other primates are supposed to be like that?

    I swear, we’re raising whole generations of domesticated homo sapiens. They never psychologically mature. They never stop seeking the approval of their parents or some other authority figure for how they live their lives. It’s no surprise that they don’t have sex as often as earlier generations.

    https://www.healthline.com/health-news/young-adults-especially-men-having-sex-less-frequently

    It wouldn’t surprise me if their offspring started having droopy ears like the children of so many other species do, too.

    “Not a single domestic animal can be named which has not in some country drooping ears”.

    —-Charles Darwin

    The Origin of Species

    1. we’re raising whole generations of domesticated homo sapiens

      That would explain why the lefties keep referring to some of us as ‘uncivilized’.

      1. Not really. A better explanation might be population density. As density increases, we find in animal and human populations, lower fertility, fewer children, children born later, and decreasing life expectancy. I suspect that this gender dysphoria we are seeing may also be traced back to density.

        https://libgen.is/search.php?req=anthill+economics&lg_topic=libgen&open=0&view=simple&res=25&phrase=1&column=def

    2. Well, the legal risks of having sex these days might have something to do with it.

      Big earlobed Eloi is not a prospect I had considered, though.

    3. “Terrible things happen with people who try to raise wolves as pets.”

      Dogs can be iffy, too. Older German Shepherds can suddenly go postal and kill their owners. There’s maybe 10k incidents in the US where a dog attack results in a hospital visit or worse. I remember reading of even a toy breed attacking and killing a baby somewhere. I prefer terriers, myself.

      There’s also the story of the 60 year + experiment in Russia where through selective breeding, tame, dog-like foxes resulted. I wonder if they could also change zebras (a notoriously ornery ungulate) into horse-like tameness.

    4. You raised a wolf Ken?

  14. This is similar to seeing if leftie shits can operate in normal society. When let out they screetch, wail, throw feces, call everyone fascists, and retreat when confronted complaining of exhaustion.

  15. The story about Travis the chimpanzee is more compelling. The day he went apeshit, he wasn’t monkeying around. He poked some woman’s eyes out, ripped off her hands and began to eat her. Amazingly, she lived.

  16. Flipper was actually two different dolphins. Both of them female.

    So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  17. Can’t recall Lucy, the sign-language talking chimp I remember was Washoe, subject of some documentaries. When she matured and moved to a more secure setting, I read about her biting off the finger of a visitor…who happened to be a surgeon! He got a settlement from the research facility.

  18. Very informative article. We follow all your blogs and they have been a true inspiration for us. Value at Void™ is a Design & Marketing, based in Sydney, Australia. Offering creative, cost-effective Design & Marketing solutions for all types of businesses. We specialize in UX UI development agency.
    We are also known as the leading responsive web design company in USA.

  19. The Story is good, I like much more

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.