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A Learning Process – A Talk With Bob Ingersoll

Bob Ingersoll tickles chimpanzee

Active citizenship is a popular topic in government, business, higher education and other realms. Typically, active citizenship is seen as participation in common goals and interests or, more commonly, civic engagement in helping to bring about needed reforms or changes in the public sector.

While there may not be a standard process, there is a consensus that the goal of active citizenship is to solve social problems and improve society. Citizens must question, debate and change established systems and structures that are unfair, preferential or unjust. It’s easy to see how someone can become overwhelmed when thinking about making a real difference—especially when the changes needed occur on a global level.

Campus Corner in the ‘90s was a quaint area adjacent to the University of Oklahoma’s Norman campus. It was inhabited with restaurants, coffee shops, kitschy clothing stores and a few other specialty boutiques. It was the epitome of a college town hangout for students and locals alike. But one store always seemed to stick out from the congestion of the retail area and that was Jungle Jim’s. Full of bright tie-dyed shirts, African art and an animal rights advocate owner with a purpose, Jungle Jim’s was an anomaly. Bob Ingersoll, Jungle Jim’s owner, wasn’t interested in the status quo and was actively trying to change it, and though unknown to him at the time, Ingersoll was implementing part of the core CLS mission in active citizenship.

Making a Difference

Bob Ingersoll with Nim Chimpsky

Image provided by Bob Ingersoll.

Ingersoll, an evolutionary biologist and OU graduate, was definitely a global thinker—but he was also working at the local level to make ethical changes in how humans treated other living beings.

Many people didn’t understand Jungle Jim’s real mission. Most thought it was just the hippie shop on Campus Corner, and even Ingersoll’s close friends didn’t truly understand the greater purpose at the time. All that changed when a documentary highlighting his effort to raise awareness about animal testing and rescuing chimpanzees was released in 2011.

Project Nim, a documentary produced by the BBC, follows the story of the Oklahoma-born chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky. (His name was a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of famed linguist Noam Chomsky.)

Nim was born in 1973 and became the subject of an animal language experiment after OU immediately sold him to Columbia University, separating him from his chimpanzee mother to be raised among humans. According to OU Professor Roger Fouts, “Since 98.7 percent of the DNA in humans and chimps is identical, some scientists (but not Noam Chomsky) believed that a chimp raised in a human family, and using ASL (American Sign Language), would shed light on the way language is acquired and used by humans. Project Nim,headed by behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace at Columbia University, was conceived in the early 1970s as a challenge to Chomsky’s thesis that only humans have language.”

The BBC film told that story, bringing all that happened to Nim and the other chimpanzees during the experiment out into the open. It featured the poorly conducted project, the terrible conditions in which they lived after the project ended and Ingersoll’s efforts to rescue as many animals as he could. The film, though gruesome, has opened doors for Ingersoll to help many primates in the years since its release.

Sadly however, Ingersoll’s legacy in the humane treatment of animals would be a long time coming.

A Long History

Bob Ingersoll walking with a chimpanzee

Image provided by Bob Ingersoll.

Ingersoll started working with chimpanzees in 1975 while attending OU. When he went to his first class at the university, he met Roger Fouts, a professor who worked with Washoe, the first sign language chimp.

“I walked up to him on my first day in his class and asked how I could work with him, and he told me what to do and who to talk to,” Ingersoll said. “That was a Monday morning. I ran—literally ran—from Dale Hall over to Goddard to get a TB test. Then I ran from Goddard over to Richards Hall. Gary Shapiro, who still works with the orangutans, was Fouts’ graduate student at the time. I told him, ‘Hey, Fouts told me that you’re going to take me out on Wednesday if my TB test, which I just got, comes back negative.’ That Wednesday, I went with him to the Institute for Primate Studies (IPS) at 48th and Lindsey.”

Ingersoll began his work at the IPS and built strong relationships with the chimpanzees, especially with Nim.

“Later, when those very same chimps were sold to theLaboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), I became a chimp rescuer, not just a chimp researcher. I’ve been involved with chimp rescue ever since.”

Shortly after Nim was sold to LEMSIP, Ingersoll exposed the issue to the press and to his colleagues. InProject Nim, he explains he had assumed the “chimp people” would leap up and stand with him in the battle to rescue Nim and other chimpanzees. Unfortunately, that did not happen; he was labeled an extremist and discounted by many of his academic contemporaries.

After realizing he was on his own, Ingersoll opened Jungle Jim’s to attract young students and make them aware that Nim’s experiences happened in Norman and had been swept under the rug.

“University officials didn’t want to talk about this because they really made a big mistake,” he said. “They sold those chimps down the river. The reality is that what happened here is as big as anything that has ever happened at OU. The reality is that Nim is an Oklahoman. He was born in Norman about 3.5 miles from campus.”

Now, 25 years after opening Jungle Jim’s, Ingersoll works with numerous rescue organizations around the world and is recognized as a pioneer in animal rights activism. He is an advisor for the Center for Great Apes and Save the Chimps and has expanded his efforts to bring an end to all animal testing.

“Now that Project Nim is out and the message is reaching people worldwide, we have a real opportunity to turn what happened here into something positive. It’s part of our history,” he said. “And it’s a moral issue. It’s no longer about what is or isn’t legal; it’s about what is or isn’t moral. Research doesn’t need animal testing. Scientists claim the primates are heroes because they’re saving lives. But they aren’t treated like heroes. We have to start asking ourselves, ‘Is this right or not?’ instead of ‘Are we making money?’”

A Work in Progress

Bob Ingersoll with a painting of Nim by Tulsa artist Lauren Lunsford

Bob Ingersoll with a painting of Nim by Tulsa artist Lauren Lunsford.

Everything about the work Ingersoll did with chimpanzees was, and still is, a learning process.

When initially trying to help Nim, he soon learned he couldn’t rescue Nim or any other chimpanzees without a safe place to send them. This lesson learned has helped shape his animal rights efforts ever since and is still unfolding today.Everything about the work Ingersoll did with chimpanzees was, and still is, a learning process.

“Holding up signs that say ‘Free the Animals’ isn’t going to do much good if we don’t have any place for those animals to go,” he said. “My tactics had to change because I realized that freeing the animals isn’t all there is to it. It’s really about money. It’s about owning up to your responsibility, putting down the money and, if there isn’t a solution, figuring one out and doing it. That’s what’s been happening during the past 30 years in terms of animal sanctuaries.”

According to a recent press conference, a large baboon breeding facility operated by the OU Health Science Center located in El Reno will be closed by 2019 pursuant to an order by OU President David Boren. The facility has long been a point of contention with animal rights activists, including Ingersoll, and the president directly mentioned the “public’s interest” in the facility as a contributing factor in its closure.

Ingersoll is an example of the CLS mission of active citizenship. Being involved in your local community is critical to democratic expression. Letting your voice be heard by voting, engaging with political leaders and encouraging your friends and neighbors to do the same is the best way to practice the philosophy of a CLS education.

There are now several volunteer opportunities for those who want to help animals, including primates. Mindy’s Memory Primate Sanctuary, Wildcare FoundationCenter for Great Apes and Save the Chimps.

Catherine Kerley
Catherine Kerley is the Web Administrator for the College of Liberal Studies. She has 17 years of web experience with CLS focusing on website design and improving user experience.

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