In the 1960s, primatology captured the interest of the public, spurring a surge in popularity for great apes. One in particular, a chimpanzee named Lucy, stands out from the crowd in the new documentary directed by Alex Parkinson titled Lucy the Human Chimp. She was part of an nature vs nurture experiment where Maurice and Jane Temerlin raised her as a human to see if she would retain her chimpanzee-ness or become “human”.
Lucy also served as catalyst for Janis Carter to become a primatologist, who still lives in Gambia working for the preservation of wild chimpanzees.
Janis Carter was a psychology student attending the University of Oklahoma when she came upon a listing posted by the Temerlins for a part-time chimp caretaker. Upon meeting the Temerlins, they warned her the 11 year-old Lucy had become a danger to her human family and not to interact with the chimp. Despite these warnings, Carter formed a close bond with the ape, establishing enough trust to groom her through the bars of her cage. When she reveals this budding friendship to Maurice Temerlin, instead of scolding her for disobeying his instructions, he encourages the friendship.
This leads to the Temerlins inviting Carter to accompany them to Gambia, where they hoped to integrate Lucy back into a more natural environment.
Barring the fact Lucy is a full grown chimp, the Temerlins insist this is the best choice for all parties involved. They only remain with their “daughter” for one week while instructing Carter she’s to stay another two weeks for a smooth transition. Initially, she intends to stay for the agreed upon time period before extending it to the month. Seeing Lucy struggle to feed herself and losing weight from parasites and diseases, Carter extends it to three months before eventually swearing she’ll only return to the states when the chimp is able to fully care for herself. What follows is the reverse; Carter is the one who ends up going chimp instead of Lucy.
Much of the story shared between Janis and Lucy is represented through re-enactments and archival footage to give a flavor of the time period. I can only guess director Parkinson chose this presentation choice to establish a narrative to keep audiences engaged with a topic that’s fallen out of favor the last few decades. Lorna Brown plays a rather silent younger Janis Carter, with Mathew Brener and Jacinta Mulcahy playing Maurice and Jane Temerlin respectively.
A nice tie-in, even unintentionally, is Peter Elliot, perhaps the most famous actor known for playing apes in film, who plays Lucy during the re-enactments. He was also involved in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist as a mime artist. This comes full circle since the documentary feels as if it’s trying to promote Janis Carter into the echelons of other famous primatologists like Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey. The film presents her as a self-sacrificing hero for the greater good of chimpanzees, which in regards to Lucy in particular, is very true.
While the film wasn’t based on the hard-to-find book about Lucy called “Lucy Growing up Human” by Maurice Temerlin, I sought it out anyway. I did find conflicting evidence between the Temerlins themselves where in the documentary Jane states Lucy only bit someone once. In his book, Maurice cites several incidents where Lucy bit people, including him when he was trying to have intercourse with his wife.
To give credit where it’s due, the film does mention the book briefly, which inspired me to seek it out. The documentary turned out to be an excellent introduction into the world of primatology, which doesn’t get much attention in today’s world.
Overall, the story of Lucy is tragic and was doomed from the start. In today’s world, such an experiment probably wouldn’t be allowed due to new laws about exotic pets and animal rights. It brings into question the ethics of the experiment the Temerlins conducted and whether they truly wished Lucy to be free or only wished to be rid of her due to her increased aggression as an adult chimpanzee. While I commend Janis on her bravery to remain with Lucy following the chimp’s untimely death at only 23 years of age, it was the wrong choice to make.
While Lucy’s death is rumored to have been done by poachers, I feel the evidence proves she probably got sick and died. Carter even states Lucy lost weight and large patches of hair due to parasites and diseases she’d never been exposed to.
Perhaps had Lucy been integrated into a chimp colony located in the United States or given to a zoo who could have better understood her unique upbringing, she might have lived a much longer, healthier life.
The tone of Lucy the Human Chimp feels more concerned about the promotion of Janis Carter rather than presenting a straightforward biography about Lucy the chimp, which may disappoint some. That said, this is still an excellent forerunner into the topic of primatology, a subject I’d never explored much until recently. Lucy’s life was both fascinating and tragic, and while I wish there had been a greater focus on her story – and maybe the plight of these poor creatures – this film still serves its purpose to make one appreciate the relationship we have with our closest relatives.