By James Ross Gardner on SeattleMet.com
There was no denying the small size of the chimp cages. PETA’s pressure forced Buckshire to begin releasing the apes to sanctuaries around the country. Slowly they shipped out, a handful at a time. By 2006 just seven chimps remained in the basement: One male named Burrito and six females, Annie, Foxie, Jody, Missy, Negra, and—with bare skin in the shape of a teardrop on her torso—Jamie.
Aside from her creative self-mutilation, little set Jamie apart from the other six chimps. For now all her caretakers could do was point to spotty paperwork with vague references to her entertainment background (“CH522—DOB 1977 domestic bred, circus animal”).
Some mornings, wheeling up Yerba Buena Road as it corkscrewed through the Santa Monica Mountains, 26-year-old Sarah Baeckler wondered, Is today the day he finds out? Is today the day Sidney Yost sees Apollo sink an incisor into her arm and, when she doesn’t reach for the Ugly Stick to show that petulant chimp who’s boss, discovers she’s an imposter?
There’d been a beating every day since she arrived at Yost’s Amazing Animal Actors training compound in the hills above Malibu. Chimpanzees knocked upside the head with a sawed-off broom handle (the Ugly Stick) and kicked and punched like the shirtless barflies in Fight Club. “Kick her in the face as hard as you can,” Yost had told Baeckler, referring to an unruly chimp. “You can’t hurt her.”
You didn’t ignore Sidney Yost. In his 30-plus years in the industry the Hollywood animal trainer had stared down all manner of beasts for shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The guy looked wild—thick and burly with a tuft of blond hair. And on his leg, says Baeckler, a police-monitored ankle bracelet. He’d recently been convicted in Florida for bankruptcy fraud.
Baeckler had tricked Yost into taking her on as an intern. She told the trainer she wanted to learn how to work with exotic animals, neglecting to mention that she’d been recruited by an organization formed to expose Hollywood’s treatment of chimpanzees and funded in part by Seattle’s Glaser Progress Foundation (led by RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser). In truth, Baeckler understood chimps better than Yost; she held a master’s degree from Central Washington University’s Primate Behavior and Ecology program. A short young woman with horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin—pretty, but as harmless looking as a librarian—Baeckler wasn’t perceived as a threat. “Come on up,” he said.
Throughout her year posing as an intern, from June 2002 to July 2003, Baeckler would see trainers punish chimps for the smallest infractions, like when four-year-old Apollo reached for a cage mate (a punch in the face), or when three-year-old Cody wouldn’t lie down (a sharp jerk on his lower lip), or when two-year-old Teá threw a fit (a blow to the head so hard she required stitches).
See, a good chimp actor doesn’t act like a chimp. A good chimp actor acts like an actor actor. Smiles on cue. Sits patiently in a race-car suit, as one of Yost’s chimps did on an episode of That ’70s Show. Chimpanzees are curious, aggressive, and anything but docile, often performing for the cameras only under the threat of violence. In the wild, when they’re anxious or fear for their lives, they bare their teeth, which looks like a human smile, a fact Hollywood trainers have exploited for decades. Once, after Apollo returned from a TV commercial shoot, Baeckler was asked to unpack the duffel bag that had accompanied him. Inside she found an electric cattle prod.
Biting caretakers was automatic grounds for a beating, and the chimps bit Baeckler all the time. But she didn’t strike back, which set her apart from the other trainers and volunteers, and increased the chances of the ruse being exposed. The brutality she witnessed every day had her on edge, and she dreaded what might happen to her if Yost realized she was there to destroy his career.
But Baeckler could see hope at the other end. She always had. She came from Hopewell, New Jersey, population 2,035, home of Charles Lindbergh. After reading a chapter on Jane Goodall in the fourth grade, Baeckler made a decision, one she’s never wavered from, to follow in Goodall’s footsteps and bring hope to endangered primates.
As she approached the compound gates each morning she gave herself a pep talk: Her time with Yost would pay off. The notes she scribbled describing what she believed were violations of California’s animal cruelty laws later bolstered a lawsuit against Amazing Animal Actors. With her hero Jane Goodall at her side, Baeckler presented these findings to Hollywood actors, directors, and producers.
She would stop Yost by spreading the truth. When a chimp smiles on-screen, you’re not watching a happy chimp. You’re watching an animal grimace with fear.
By 2005, Keith LaChappelle’s dream of opening a sanctuary was under way. He hunched over an oak desk in his living room poring over books on chimpanzee behavior and chimpanzee care, studying catalogs on wire mesh and building systems. He bought an old farm on the outskirts of Cle Elum, 80 miles southeast of Seattle, and moved into the small house on the premises. Alone, with nothing but horses to witness his progress, he began to build. Often in a baseball cap and a T-shirt tucked into a tan Utilikilt, he laid the cement foundation and raised supporting beams. Occasionally his friends would throw him building parties, each contributing their expertise.
In between construction stages he continued to visit chimp sanctuaries, including San Antonio’s Primarily Primates, Sarah Baeckler’s new post. She was four years off her Sidney Yost investigation. Yost denied her accusations, but her work forced his hand; to avoid a lawsuit Yost agreed to release all his chimps to sanctuaries. Sadly, Apollo, the chimp with whom Baeckler had most bonded, never made it out. He died, she was told, from a snake bite on Yost’s compound, alone on a cage floor.
Baeckler vowed to fight for chimps even harder. She had recently finished
a law degree at Lewis and Clark to sharpen her animal rights arsenal and was
now helping clean up the poorly run Primarily Primates.
Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest director Sarah Baeckler with Jamie and Annie.
She told LaChappelle that she and two former Central Washington University primatology classmates, Diana Goodrich and J. B. Mulcahy, also had plans to open a sanctuary. But the more she and LaChappelle talked, the more they realized they should all join forces. And so Baeckler, Goodrich, and Mulcahy joined LaChappelle’s fledgling Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest.
They had a nearly completed facility but no apes. Then: “I received a phone call from a woman at PETA,” LaChappelle recalls, “and she said, ‘Do you know about these seven chimps in Pennsylvania?’ Buckshire was desperate to unload them.
LaChappelle flew to Philly. He and Mulcahy piled into Mulcahy’s 1998 Dodge Neon and followed the truck and trailer that transported the chimps from Buckshire’s warehouse to Washington state. “It was a pretty intense trip,” LaChappelle recalls. “We’d been working like seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, putting the finishing touches on the sanctuary. Then we had to fly out and drive across country, nonstop.”
The truck rolled up the hill to the sanctuary around eight in the morning on June 13, 2008. The Cle Elum Seven were home.
The chimps looked terrible. Pale from lack of sun exposure, muscles atrophied from living in confined spaces, they blinked at their new surroundings. Jamie scooted out of her transport cage, exposing her hairless torso, and into her new home.
Slowly, the staff introduced toys and other items the chimps had never known. Foxie, a 31-year-old, had spent her life as a breeder in labs and had borne five babies that were taken from her. Within weeks, she took a liking to troll dolls with punked out hair and began carrying them everywhere. Negra, at 35 the oldest chimp and probably the only one born in the wild, hooded herself in a blanket like an old sage. The chief caretaker at Buckshire had told Baeckler and the staff that Negra was the alpha chimp. That quickly proved to be a laughable assessment, likely stemming from the fact that Negra was the oldest and biggest. She turned out to be one of the least dominant. It was Jamie who established herself as the undisputed leader.
Once the chimps adjusted to their new surroundings, the Cle Elum staff began setting out fruit such as nectarines, one for each chimp. Jamie snagged hers and, as the other chimps watched, made a lackluster attempt to steal Jody’s nectarine. “Then without warning Jamie looked up and, at the top of her lungs, started screaming and saliva dripped from her mouth, just having a complete fit,” Mulcahy recalls. “And all the other chimps, when that happens, they get worked up, too. It’s contagious. So everyone started running around and fighting and screaming. And Jamie just calmly went around and picked up all the nectarines they’d dropped. That was her strategy. She’s just playing them all, you know? It’s just like one big setup and no one else realized it.”
Jamie also displayed the most human behavior of the chimps. She’s the most likely to draw with crayons and try on clothes and mimic the actions of her caretakers. Aside from scant medical documentation, records for the chimps are nonexistent; no one is really sure where they’ve all been for the past 30 years. But Sarah and the sanctuary staff assume that Jamie had a lot of human training in her past.
Jamie, with self-plucked torso, the day she arrived at the sanctuary.
Keith LaChappelle left Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in January 2009. Having spent all $200,000 to save the apes, he took a job at an animal adoption center near Everett and turned the reins over to Sarah Baeckler, now director of the sanctuary, J. B. Mulcahy, who oversees operations, and Diana Goodrich, in charge of outreach. Mulcahy and Goodrich, life partners, live in LaChappelle’s old house on the property. But LaChappelle still figures into the chimps’ lives. In October, CSNW, which relies on donations and small grants from animal rights groups, held a benefit auction at Seattle’s Fremont Abbey Arts Center. Chimp-loving Seattleites turned out in force to bid on paintings (Foxie with a pink-haired troll doll) and yoga classes and Caribbean cruises.
LaChappelle took the stage in a T-shirt and straw hat to draw a name for
the raffle. The master of ceremonies, KOMO-TV’s Michelle Esteban, recounted
all that LaChappelle had done for the Cle Elum Seven. When the audience
jumped out of its seats for a standing ovation, he cracked a shy grin. As
the auction proceeded, LaChappelle, his face still red from embarrassment,
faded into the shadows at the back of the room, where he turned to the
person next him and said, “Anything for the chimps. Anything.”
On a soggy October day, the Cle Elum valley cloaked in fog, Sarah Baeckler and Diana Goodrich stand beside the facility’s outdoor area. As Baeckler explains how, a few months earlier, the city council had approved a proclamation declaring the chimps official citizens of Cle Elum, Jamie, the only chimp who braved the cold, claps her hands on the other side of the wire mesh, pleading with Goodrich for a piece of gum. Baeckler is amazed by Jamie’s intelligence. But it’s bittersweet. The chimp’s humanlike behavior suggests she spent a lot of time being trained to act like a human, and Baeckler, more than anyone, knows what horrors that entails. Nine labs in the U.S. still use chimps for invasive medical research. And while the frequency has dwindled thanks to activists like Baeckler, chimps still show up on TV and movie screens—though none are wrangled by Sid Yost.
Goodrich runs to the other end of the outdoor area and claps, Jamie gallops after her and claps, too. Baeckler breaks a smile as she watches. A real smile. They run from end to end, clapping in unison, back and forth. Human and ape.