Bob Ingersoll gets emails every day. He reads each one. The senders often turn into friends. Those friends lead him to other areas of interest related to his work. But Ingersoll does not want this story to be about him.
He wants it to be about Heartland Rabbit Rescue in Blanchard, about Mindy’s Memory Primate Sanctuary, about Hands Helping Paws in Norman and about each and every animal rescue and rights organization in Oklahoma, the United States and beyond.
“They’re my real heroes,” he said. What Ingersoll would really like this story to be about, however, is Nim.
Ingersoll’s friend, Nim, is the reason he receives so many messages from people, detailing their efforts at passing out leaflets or thanking him for what they call his heroism. Nim is the chimp who, in 1973, was the subject of a project to make him human, more or less, by teaching him American Sign Language and raising him among people.
The other story about Nim (surname Chimpsky), the HBO documentary Project Nim, is up for two Emmys on Sept. 22. The nominations include a nod for Best Documentary.
Ingersoll, who splits his time between Norman and the Bay Area in Northern California, has nothing but praise for the filmmakers who “just got it,” especially producer Simon Chinn.
Ingersoll, who befriended Nim and other research chimpanzees at the University of Oklahoma’s now-defunct Institute for Primate Studies (IPS), couldn’t be happier.
“It’s pretty clear what’s going on,” he said. “We’re abusing and exploiting animals. It’s right in front of our face, and we’re ignoring it.” When a 2-week-old Nim was sent to live with his surrogate parents in Manhattan, he was at first playful, a welcome addition.
But an animal isn’t a human. When, in 1977, Nim sank his teeth into a female volunteer, he was shipped back to IPS. After years of being dressed, coddled and cozied like a human, Nim had to remember how to be a chimp again. It was hard, even traumatic, but he found help in Ingersoll. Until the chimp’s death in 2000, Ingersoll remained committed to helping Nim recover from a world into which he had been thrust and then discarded.
Today, the U.S. is the only Western country to continue experimenting on chimpanzees; Ingersoll has rallied against the practice since he was a hippie at OU.
Now he is a hippie in San Francisco who runs what he calls his “Secret Network,” a rescue operation that relocates primates (and increasingly other animals) through a system of activists.
The attention for Project Nim and the book on which it’s based, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, has meant Ingersoll’s Secret Network is less secret.
“If this book, this movie inspires just one person to do stuff like that, it’s just crazy,” he said. “The good crazy.”