Lucy the Chimpanzee’s story is an animal rights nightmare. As told in the new documentary Lucy the Human Chimp, psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife, Jane, bought the fuzzy primate from a roadside zoo in Florida that trained chimps to box human opponents when she was only two days old. (The zoo drugged Lucy’s mother by spiking a Coca-Cola with a tranquilizer.) From then on, the Temerlins raised their new “daughter” as human, teaching her to dress herself and use silverware. She even knew how to make her own gin and tonics.
The Temerlins’ famous experiment, in which they raised a chimpanzee as human to study that age-old question of “nature versus nurture,” sounds barbaric now, but in its time it received heaps of publicity. Lucy learned around 120 signs, and seemed to flourish in the Temerlins’ home—that is, until she reached sexual maturity.
Lucy the Human Chimp, which debuts HBO Max Thursday, focuses on what happened after Lucy left the spotlight—when caretaker Janis Carter stepped in to feed and clean up after the largely cage-bound animal after the Temerlins had deemed her unmanageable and dangerous. She would ultimately spend more than six years of her life living with Lucy and other rescued chimps in Gambia, first at a nature reserve and then on an uninhabited island.
Director Alex Parkinson tells Lucy and Carter’s stories with empathy, leaving space for both humor and tragedy. The most effective moments come during interviews with Carter, when she reflects on the profound bond she formed with her chimp charges. “I learned a lot more about families living with the chimps than I did with my own human family,” Carter says at one point. (She now serves as director of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project in Gambia.)
Still, the film struggles to establish much critical distance from its human subject. Parkinson does not engage, for instance, with the argument that Lucy was not a suitable rehabilitation candidate, and that efforts to prepare and release her into the wild actually hurt her. Much like My Octopus Teacher, which won best documentary at Sunday’s Oscars, Lucy the Human Chimp works better as a personal narrative than it does as a documentary. That said, Carter’s narration does at least largely avoid anthropomorphizing Lucy or romanticizing her story.
Carter first began working for the Temerlins in 1976 as a 25-year-old graduate student of the University of Oklahoma focused on primate studies. From the beginning, the couple told her that physical contact with Lucy would not be permitted, given the decent chance that she could lose at least a finger or two from an encounter gone awry.
“There wasn’t any nicety in her greeting with me,” Carter recalls in the film. The chimp was unequivocally aggressive—and on top of that, she was a sign language perfectionist, and therefore “condescending” toward her new, ASL-illiterate assistant.
Over time, however, Lucy seemed to soften toward her human caretaker. One day, Carter says, the chimp expressed a desire to groom her—a bonding ritual between the primates. After some hesitation, she acquiesced, and soon after, she returned the favor, grooming Lucy as well.
Carter had been nervous to tell the Temerlins about her and Lucy’s ritual. But when she did, Maurice was thrilled; it turned out that the couple had decided that they could no longer care for Lucy in a humane way and would be sending her to a nature reserve in Gambia so that she could be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. Carter agreed to accompany the couple and to remain at the reserve for one additional week beyond their two-week stay. In 1977, 12-year-old Lucy rode to Africa in the cargo hold of an airplane; the first-class passengers could hear her screams.
Lucy languished at the refuge, dropping weight and losing patches of hair as she rejected her new diet and isolated herself from the other chimps. Carter could not bear to leave her hairy ward until she knew she could survive on her own. So after multiple short-term delays, she decided to stay for the long haul. She abandoned her life for more than six years to live among chimpanzees in almost complete isolation from other people, first on the refuge and then on a remote island on the Gambia River that was also home to hippos, hyenas, cobras, and leopards.
Carter makes no pretense that she had any idea what she was doing in these extraordinary circumstances. As she puts it, “Everything was on me and my gut.”
Archival footage and photos combine with staged re-enactments bring Lucy the Human Chimp to life. Parkinson interviews Carter straight on, allowing her testimony to narrate the bulk of the film. Her emotions about the time she spent with Lucy and the other rescue chimps remain fresh to this day; at one point, she tears up remembering their nightly ritual of watching the sunset from a boat, dipping their hands in the water.
“It just seemed so genuine,” Carter says. “Every second of it was just so genuine, and we were appreciative of what life had given us that day... feeling that all of these vile forces of civilization did not impact us. It was just us.”
At a time when most of us have spent more than a year isolated and unable to travel, it’s not hard to grasp the appeal of a story in which a woman abandons everything and everyone she knows to discover a purer way of life surrounded by nature. For Carter, the journey seems to have been as spiritual as it was primal. (Although, that said, before you pack your bags for the nearest reserve, you should know that she also slept in a cage with no ceiling, and the chimps slept above her on the roof—urinating and defecating onto her bed any time an unfamiliar noise startled them.)
As the film winds down, Carter recalls the moment that rescue chimp Dash, who she’d raised for most of his life, asserted his authority after coming into sexual maturity as the oldest male in the group. In a harrowing instant, he charged her and dragged her through the forest—making clear that she’d become the “No. 2” in the group and that it was no longer safe to stay. Carter would return to the island one more time, a year later, to visit Lucy—and it’s hard to imagine anyone finishing the film with dry eyes after she describes their last embrace, when she realized the chimp could survive on her own. And then, there’s the final heartbreak: Lucy would die little more than a year later, although the cause of her death is undetermined.
That, perhaps, is the tragedy of Lucy’s story: After spending years struggling to acclimate to the life she would have naturally lived, had humans left her alone, she ultimately had barely any time to enjoy it.
Maurice Temerlin died in 1988; he notes in archival Good Morning America footage that “Lucy might have missed something not knowing chimpanzees.” In voiceover audio, Jane expresses her gratitude for Carter’s dedication to Lucy but adds, “I wouldn’t take a chimp from a chimpanzee mother again.”
Many viewers might tune in to Lucy and the Chimp for a cute, feel-good story about the unexpected bond between the primate and her caretaker—I certainly did!—and despite the sad ending to Lucy’s story, Parkinson’s doc largely delivers. But one hopes that Lucy’s story also leaves a deeper impression. One hopes that viewers will come away with not only greater empathy for wildlife, but also a better understanding of just how great a threat human involvement in these creatures’ lives can pose—even when the intentions are good.