JAnis Carter was 25 years old when, in September 1976, she responded to a notice on a notice board for a job as a part-time caregiver for a chimpanzee. The job was relevant to Carter’s interests as a graduate student in the primate studies group at the University of Oklahoma and could help pay for school. It was also mostly without intervention; The caretakers, psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife, Jane, relayed instructions via a note left on the kitchen counter, save for one strict rule: no physical contact with Lucy, their 11-year-old chimpanzee.
Lucy had other plans. The chimp, raised as the Temerlin “daughter” as part of a reckless 1960s experiment in nature’s limits versus nurture, immediately challenged Carter’s ability to maintain the limit. “It was formidable,” recalls Carter in an expansive and captivating interview that forms the backbone of Lucy the Human Chimp, a new HBO Max documentary about the primate used as an idealistic science experiment and the caretaker who accompanied it to extraordinary ends.
Lucy, a “very accurate” signer with a 120-word American Sign Language vocabulary, was “very arrogant, very condescending” about Carter’s inability to understand her. One day, Lucy indicated to Carter that she wanted to groom her. In a tense moment recreated in the film, Carter dropped the limit of touch. When Lucy asked to be fixed in return, Carter shoved his fingers through the wire cage. It was “a very special moment for me,” he recalls in the film, “and it has nothing to do with theories of psychology or language or anything like that. It was our moment. “
This pivotal moment of intimacy anchors Lucy the Human Chimp, a deceptively poignant and sensitive first-person account of an intense and unusual bond between species. The 79-minute film goes from Carter’s bizarre college job to a tale of tragically misguided idealism and ultimately a portrait of a singular friendship – a testament to the loyalty and blurring of boundaries between our closest animal cousins and U.S.
In 1977, the Temerlins decided that Lucy, despite having met humans, should live as a free chimpanzee in an African nature reserve. Carter accompanied the Temerlins to the Gambia on what was supposed to be a three-week trip to help Lucy adjust to her new home. She never came back; Lucy, extremely depressed by the turmoil and the disappearance of her human parents, unable to forage for food and unwilling to ditch her human diet for leaves, needed her friend. Carter extended his trip a couple of weeks, then a couple of months, then moved to an uninhabited island in the Gambia River with Lucy and two other chimpanzees unable to survive in the wild unaided. He stayed on the island, with his family of 10 rehabilitated chimpanzees and no other humans, for more than six years.
“They got along like beings, and that’s clear,” the film’s director, Alex Parkinson, told The Guardian. “It’s the same as all the chimpanzees on the island: they all got along as one family. And it’s such an extraordinary thought that Janis is probably the only person who has ever done this in the whole world. “
Behind this extraordinary bond was scientific idealism gone wrong. The first third of the film reproduces, through the Temerlin home videos and archival news footage, Lucy’s mini-celebrity status as a push-through experiment in the 1960s. She was born in 1964 in a American roadside zoo, and the Temerlins separated her from her sedated mother within two days to be raised by the Temerlins as proof of the malleability of natural instincts, in line with the pioneering and shameless feats of the decade. At the time, the field of primatology was in vogue as an empirical and photogenic research on questions of evolution and cognition. Pioneering primatologists like Jane Goodall made headlines and inspired careers; primates with limited ability to communicate through magazines covered in sign language. Lucy herself, once in the Gambia, was the subject of an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, a staple of Sunday primetime.
The Temerlin experiment, raising Lucy as close to human as possible, was part of this “general exploration of what it means to be human and what the limits of our abilities are,” Parkinson said. “What is that dividing line between animal and human? On paper, back then, it made sense, ”he said of Lucy’s adoption. “But obviously now, looking back through today’s lens, it’s completely wrong and immoral and it doesn’t happen anymore, and rightly so.”
The early days were cheesy TV specials: excerpts from the Temerlin home videos collected in Lucy the Human Chimp show Lucy in a diaper, hugging her parents, eating oatmeal with a spoon, wandering around the living room. “We wonder how much of a chimpanzee it would become or how human.” Maurice Temerlin’s diary entry reads in voiceover. The tragedy is hardly hidden; To no one’s surprise, Lucy’s captivity became increasingly untenable with age. The “loving family home,” Jane Temerlin laments in voice-over, became “impossible for her to live as an adult.” (Jane was remotely interviewed for the film; Maurice Temerlin died in 1988).
Parkinson believes, however, that the Temerlin “the best intentions stem from the fact that they saw Lucy as their daughter. They really loved her as their daughter. And they tried to do the right thing for her and correct her life later. “
“He had a hard time persuading her to talk about it,” Parkinson said of a remote interview with Jane, as it is “an extremely emotional topic” for both her and Carter. “I think it affected them deeply in good and bad ways. And it’s a kind of thing that they haven’t really assimilated, they haven’t really gone into great detail with it within themselves since it happened. “
The Temerlins and Carters wanted Lucy to be “independent, free, to have a choice,” recalls Carter in the film, but it was difficult, almost unfathomable. The last half of the film dramatically recreates Carter’s time on the island (played by Lorna Nickson Brown), who only left by boat every few weeks to buy supplies. (The reliance on dramatic re-enactments and the Carter interview resulted, according to Parkinson, once the Covid lockdowns prevented further interviews with experts, academics, and other figures in Carter’s life.) Carter had no camping and minimal outdoor experience; he once found a rat decomposing in the water supply he had used for days. Chimpanzees relied on his leadership for food and emotional support. Scared and confused, they slept on the canopy of their mosquito net for the first few months, defecating in fear in their bed at the unfamiliar sounds of the jungle.
The group adjusted, survived, coalesced as a family free from the human measures of time. “I don’t know if I ever became a chimpanzee, so to speak,” Carter says in the film. “But I think our personalities and our cultural tendencies came together at some point and we were who we were.” Carter only left when a male chimpanzee, an offspring-like figure, attacked her as an assertion of overriding dominance. She settled on the other side of the river and then returned once more to visit Lucy, who held her tightly, a moment captured in an iconic and cuddly photograph. Weeks later, a search party found Lucy’s scattered remains on the island, whose cause of death is unknown.
Carter stayed in the Gambia, working on chimpanzee rehabilitation, as the island’s population increased to more than 100 chimpanzees. At the end of the film, he recalls the deep sense of inner peace and interconnectedness that ran through his years on the island, sacred moments remembered by the beauty of each sunset. “How often do you get a chance to live like this today?” she asks. Then, reflecting many clips of Lucy, she covers her eyes with her hands.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism