the last on my list of the most amazing and possibly even true scientific phonomena that blow my mind, continued: Lucy
by nikki meredith
Lucy was an unabashedly uninhibited girl of the ‘60’s for whom the sexual revolution was beside the point. She was able to tap into her erotic resources with no help from Masters and Johnson and she instinctively took responsibility for her own orgasms without so much as a glance at Our Bodies, Ourselves. Lucy’s story made an impression on me. A big impression. After reading about her, I never felt quite the same about a lot of things – sex, the female anatomy, couches, naked men, images of naked men, vacuum cleaners.
Lucy was a chimp who was raised from infancy by Dr. Maurice Temerlin, a University of Oklahoma psychology professor, and his wife Jane. The couple treated Lucy as a daughter and, as such, tried to socialize her the way they would a human daughter. They arranged for her to learn rudimentary American sign language, they taught her to sit with them at the dinner table, eat with utensils, dress herself and, to some extent, maintain personal hygiene. They had some success in each area, though they made more progress with table manners than with toilet use. And I first read Temerlin’s account of life with Lucy in the late 1960’s in an article in Psychology Today. All of it was interesting but the following was, well, mind blowing.
Picture the following: Lucy ambles into the kitchen and takes a highball glass out of the cabinet. She pours herself a finger or two of gin and, glass in hand, moves into the den where she collects a stack of Playgirl magazines. Her next stop is the living room. She places her highball and her magazines on the coffee table and then goes to the broom closet to retrieve the vacuum cleaner which she plugs into the electrical socket. She then settles herself on the couch and while perusing the male centerfolds uses the business end of the Hoover (tool use!) to have herself a little party.
In years that followed, I told this story to many people and hardly anyone I told believed that it was true. Either they thought I was exaggerating or they believed that Temerlin himself made it up. After awhile, I had trouble believing it myself. The more I thought about it, the less it made sense. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in cross-species imprinting. When I was a little girl, one year I was given a brand new baby duckling for Easter. From the moment that baby laid eyes on me, I was Mama and Ducky followed me everywhere — that is, until a neighbor’s cat put an end to it. If that duckling had been a male and lived long enough to become a mature drake, would it have been turned on by Playboy centerfolds?
Okay, not a good example. We share 98 percent of our DNA with chimps, not as much with ducks. (A first pass with Google didn’t reveal how much.)
Anyway, the story about Lucy turned out to be true. Temerlin subsequently wrote a book about it (Lucy: Growing up Human 1975) and more recently Radio Lab on NPR did a piece about Lucy in which her affinity for gin, playgirl models and vacuum cleaners was mentioned.
Before I tell you what happened to Lucy, let me acknowledge that looking at the situation through today’s lens, what they did was unconscionable. We now know that raising a baby ape, or, for that matter, any wild animal, separated from its own species almost always ends tragically. Even through the lens of 50 years ago, Dr. Temerlin seemed oddly naïve; he was certainly a man without a plan. In his book he admitted that when he gazed into the eyes of his adorable chimp daughter, he didn’t realize that in eight to ten years she would weigh 100 pounds and be five to seven times stronger than he was. The information that chimps grew to be big and strong was available to anyone within driving distance of a zoo; it was certainly available to a professor of psychology.
Many of the people who listened to the Radio Lab story were highly critical of Temerlin. The vitriol towards him in the comment section gushes like a Texas oil well. If the man wasn’t already dead, someone would probably try to kill him. There were one or to valid criticisms but most of it was flailing free-floating rage. (Wow, there are a lot of angry folks walkin’ around out there.)
The Temerlin experiment may have been misguided and the good doctor certainly had some boundary issues but I believe his motivation was honorable. When I read his account of life with Lucy, I was envious. She was funny and fun, at times petulant; she could be nasty but she could also be sweet and caring. Most of all she was interesting. I couldn’t help wishing that it were possible to have a relationship with our closest DNA cousin.
By the time Lucy reached 12, she was too strong and too dangerous to continue living with them – good manners can take you just so far – so they decided to send her to an island sanctuary in Gambia to be rehabilitated. It was not an easy process. (Lucy really did believe she was human. While she was still with the Temerlins, she was introduced to a male chimp after she reached sexually maturity. She was not only not attracted to him she was terrified. )
In Gambia, the Temerlins stayed with her for a few weeks and then turned over the job of teaching her to be a chimp to Janis Carter, a graduate student from the University of Oklahoma. Carter continued working with her for years, teaching her to eat leaves, sleep in trees and gradually exposing her to the company of chimps. Lucy eventually adjusted to being with her own kind, though she never reproduced. She also never learned to fear humans and it’s believed that she was eventually killed by poachers.