So much is known, now, about our similarities to other primates, it is easy to forget that it was relatively recently that we were still establishing exactly where we humans ended – and they began. Through the 20th century, the study of chimpanzees in particular was a way to learn about ourselves: how we might fare in space, for example, and how we might communicate in the absence of a common tongue.
Lucy The Human Chimp, a new television documentary from HBO and Channel 4, explores the meeting of those worlds through the story of one unique relationship: that between Lucy, a chimpanzee raised as a human, and Janis Carter, a graduate student hired to clean her cage. Through the late 1960s, Lucy was the subject of a high-profile study by psychologists Maurice and Jane Temerlin, ostensibly to explore the limits of nature versus nurture.
The Temerlins brought Lucy up in their home more or less as though she was a human child, to the point of teaching her to dress herself, eat with silverware and even fix a gin and tonic. Primatologist Roger Fouts, whose success teaching a chimp named Washoe a form of American sign language was heavily publicised in 1970, likewise taught Lucy a vocabulary of 100 signs (though the extent of apes’ comprehension of signing remains disputed).
Eventually the Temerlins came to regard the chimp as their daughter. Much has been made of Lucy’s story, including an episode of the acclaimed Radiolab podcast and the novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (for which author Karen Joy Fowler said she drew from Maurice Temerlin’s “very disturbing” book Lucy: Growing Up Human). Lucy The Human Chimp, written and directed by Alex Parkinson, puts forward Carter, now 70, to share what happened next.
Carter had been a 25-year-old psychology student within the University of Oklahoma’s chimp research project when, in 1976, she answered the Temerlins’ advertisement for a part-time carer for Lucy. After a frosty start – Carter remembers the chimp as “arrogant, and very condescending” about her poor comprehension of sign language – the two forged a close bond. But the adolescent chimp increasingly posed a threat to her human family, and was confined to a cage.
In 1977, the Temerlins decided to take 12-year-old Lucy to Gambia to be taught how to live in the wild; Carter went along to help. For Carter, a trip of a few weeks turned into years as Lucy struggled to adjust to life as a chimp. From 1979, she lived for nearly seven years on an otherwise uninhabited island in the Gambia River, alongside Lucy and a small troupe of orphaned and captive chimps. Carter left the island only after a young male attacked her in 1985, supplanting her as leader.
More so than might be inferred from its title, the focus of Parkinson’s film is on Carter and her relationship with Lucy, as told by Carter herself. An interview with Jane Temerlin and re-enactments by actors (based on first-hand accounts) provide some context, but little by way of critical distance.
Carter’s decades-long dedication to protecting Lucy – and now her species, as director of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project in Gambia – is, without a doubt, remarkable. But Parkinson’s film does not interrogate a view that Lucy, having been born and raised in captivity, was never a suitable candidate for rehabilitation and release into the wild, and suffered in the attempt.
As detailed by journalist Deborah Blum in her 1994 book The Monkey Wars, and more recently the 2011 documentary Project Nim, apes have invariably come off worse in their interactions with humans, even those that had the best of intentions. Lucy’s life began in 1964, in a roadside zoo in Florida, and ended a few years after Carter’s departure in mysterious circumstances, likely killed by a poacher.
Lucy The Human Chimp is less concerned with those big-picture, ethical questions provoked by Lucy’s somewhat sorry existence than it is her “remarkable, unbreakable friendship” with Carter (though, if it had been, Carter may not have been best placed to answer them). As it is, the film is a fascinating study of the lengths and the limits of chimps and humans’ ventures into each others’ worlds – similar as they may be.
Just as Lucy was raised a human, Carter lived as a chimp. But, after the best part of a decade, she had to extract herself and return to her own kind, she says: “I couldn’t live in both worlds.”
Lucy the Human Chimp airs on Channel 4 on 19 April at 9pm and in the US on HBO Max on 29 April
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