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The Chimp Who Believed She Was Human

Sep 26, 2018 | 697 videos
Video by Elisa Chee

In 1964, a psychotherapist and his wife adopted a two-day-old chimpanzee. They named her Lucy. For twelve years, Dr. Maurice and Jane Temerlin would raise Lucy as if she were their human daughter. The chimp ate at the family dinner table, using silverware. She dressed herself. She served her parents tea. She even learned 140 signs in American Sign Language.


When Lucy reached adolescence, she developed a taste for straight gin and Playgirl—which she flipped through while masturbating with a vacuum cleaner. She began to act out, sometimes violently. Growing concerned, the Temerlins decided to introduce Lucy to another chimp for the first time, with the apparent intention of mating them. Lucy was uninterested. By all measurable counts, Lucy believed she was human.


In time, Lucy’s aggressive outbursts worsened. Eventually, the Temerlins decided to return her to Africa to live in a sanctuary for orphaned and captive-born chimps on an island on the Gambia River. To help her emotionally and physically adapt to life in the wild, Lucy’s adoptive parents hired Janis Carter to spend three weeks with the chimp on the island. “She didn’t have a clue about how to survive,” Carter recalls in Elisa Chee’s short film, Lucy. “She wouldn’t even try.”


The masterfully animated film features excerpts from Chee’s three-hour conversation with Carter, in which Carter explains how her initial stay on the island turned into a decade. “She loved Lucy so much that she couldn’t abandon her,” Chee recently told The Atlantic, “even if it meant living in a foreign place indefinitely and putting her own life on hold.”


Not only did Carter live in a foreign place, but she also was the only human around. To encourage Lucy to acclimate to her environment and assimilate into the community of chimps, Carter demonstrated how to eat bugs and leaves, among other adaptive habits.


“I thought that Janis would have this big statement for why she decided to stay in Africa for so many years to help Lucy,” Chee said, “but actually, she described her decision as a thousand little ones…waking up each morning and thinking, ‘Does Lucy need me here longer?’ and then just doing what it took so that Lucy could be independent. It’s incredible to commit years of one’s life to caring for someone out of love, just so you can eventually part ways.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of short films curated by The Atlantic