Psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife Jane decided to embark on a controversial experiment in 1964. They adopted Lucy, a chimpanzee, and raised her as if she were their own human child. Indeed, she eventually learned to eat at the table with a knife and fork, and even picked up American sign language. But as the chimp became aggressive and took on worrying human characteristics, Maurice and Jane had to take action.
Maurice was born in January 1924 and raised in Ardmore, Olkahoma. He later studied at the University of Oklahoma, earning a bachelor’s degree and doctorate in clinical psychology. Maurice then worked in a number of roles at the institution from 1955 until 1974, and during that time he married Jane Temerlin.
Maurice went on to become a successful author in the field. Later in his career, with the help of wife Jane, he published a well-received paper on the cults of psychotherapy. He also worked for the American Board of Professional Psychology, and was a member of the American and Oregon Psychology Association.
But it was a little girl that Maurice and Jane decided to adopt that would make him famous. That’s because she also happened to be a chimpanzee. But why would a seemingly normal couple raise a chimp as their daughter? The answer, they said, was research.
Lucy began life in a colony of carnival chimps in Florida. She was then given to Oklahoma’s Institute of Primate Studies for Research. Is it here where she met Jane and Maurice in 1964.
Maurice and Jane then adopted Lucy and took her home. Right off the bat, they treated the infant primate as if she were a human baby. She wore diapers, drank from a bottle and got warm cuddles from her parents.
As Lucy got older, she learned to do lots of things that little girls do. She could get dressed, make tea and sat at the table to eat. She even learned over 100 American Sign Language words. The primate was able to use the language to describe certain feelings, such as sadness when her mom left the house, or when she was dirty.
However, Lucy’s behavior began to change drastically as she developed. Primatologist Jane Goodall witnessed this bad behavior for herself during a visit in 1972. She wrote that she watched the young chimp make herself a gin and tonic, and then sit and drink it while watching television.
Lucy’s bad behavior didn’t end there, though. From violent outbursts to masturbation, the chimp became too much for Maurice and Jane to handle. As she had reached sexual maturity, her parents thought that meeting a male chimp might help. Lucy, however, didn’t agree. “By all measurable counts, [she] believed she was human,” The Atlantic wrote in a report about the primate.
From that point of view, the experiment to see how human a chimpanzee could become had been a complete success. Lucy’s refusal of the male chimp signified just how dramatic the change had been. For all intents and purposes, Maurice and Jane had turned her into one of us.
Not long after that, Maurice and Jane decided that Lucy had become too aggressive to continue to live with them. They chose to send her to Africa to a primate sanctuary. Located on an island on the Gambian River in West Africa, the the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust catered to orphaned chimps.
The couple employed Janis Carter, a psychology graduate student from the University of Oklahoma, to stay on the island with Lucy for a few weeks. They aimed to help the chimp by easing her into her natural habitat. Janis then set about the task of preparing Lucy for the challenges brought by life in the wild.
Janis showed Lucy how to forage, what was safe to eat and spoke only with recognizable chimps sounds. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, slow going. In the short film Lucy, Janis described the experience to director Elisa Chee. “She didn’t have a clue how to survive. She wouldn’t even try.” It’s possible that, for the primate, going from using cutlery to picking berries was a harder transition than anyone involved had realized.
What began as a three-week trip for Janis turned into a decade-long residency in Gambia. Lucy’s need was so great that she felt unable to leave. Janis told director Elisa Chee, “[I just did] what it took for Lucy to be independent.”
Eventually, Lucy began to get used to her surroundings. Janis took that as a sign that it was time for her to make an exit, so she dutifully left the reserve. A year later, she returned with a film crew, and brought with her some of Lucy’s things. And upon her arrival, the two shared a tender hug.
The reunion didn’t last long, however. Once the cuddle was over, Lucy wandered away. For Janis, that was a clear indication that the chimp’s integration into the colony had finally been successful. With her job done, she left once again. Sadly, just 12 months later, Lucy was dead. Her bones were discovered in the camp Janis once called home.
Reports of Lucy’s death vary. What is certain is that she disappeared in September 1987 and her partial skeleton was discovered weeks later, with her hands and feet missing. It is also believed that she was most likely killed by human hunters.
The Gambian Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust, however, categorically denies that Lucy was killed by poachers. On its website, a statement reads, “Disease, a fall, drowning, a snake bite or even depression are each more likely causes of her death than being killed by poachers.”
The statement continues, “The very limited bush-meat trade in the Gambia rarely includes monkeys and certainly not chimpanzees.” It also denies that Lucy’s missing hands and feet indicate she was poached. “The nearest market offering such items is a very long way down the coast of West Africa.”
Whatever the truth, Maurice and Jane Temerlin have come under criticism for their decision to raise Lucy as a human. Indeed, the couple’s experiment had a profound impact on the chimp. The Gambian Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust was unequivocal. “Almost the whole of Lucy’s life… was one of manipulation solely for the benefit of a few misguided… human primates.”