Chimps On (and Off) Stage

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Chimps On (and Off) Stage

[Ed. Note: To learn more about how many ways chimpanzees are abused for entertainment (advertisements, movies, TV shows, at parties, watch Cruel Camera and read Why Is This Chimp Smiling? and Jane Goodall Asks Film & TV Industry Leaders to End Use of Great Apes.]

By Patrick Battuello, In Behalf of Animals

Chimps are also sensitive, experiencing a full range of emotions: they know comfort and fear, love and loss, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. And yes, they can suffer. For chimpanzees born and raised for entertainment, that suffering has several phases, each worse than the previous.

Shame on producers, directors, and actors. And shame on us (myself included) for laughing at their precocious antics, never bothering to ask who they are, how they arrived on stage, and what that life entails. Shame on the whole dirty, rotten, corrupt industry.

“[The young chimps] were being kicked in the face and punched in the head and subject to all kinds of physical abuse to keep them paying attention and in line with the trainer.”
- Dr. Sarah Baeckler on what she witnessed at Amazing Animal Actors

Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA. They are self-aware and extraordinarily intelligent (even cunning and deceptive). They have a keen memory and are, remarkably, altruistic (a quality previously thought exclusive to humans). Chimps are also sensitive, experiencing a full range of emotions: they know comfort and fear, love and loss, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. And yes, they can suffer. For chimpanzees born and raised for entertainment, that suffering has several phases, each worse than the previous.

Young captive chimps are torn from their mothers between one and two (in the wild, they are practically attached to their moms for seven years). Jane Goodall, primatologist and the world’s foremost chimpanzee authority (having conducted a 45-year study), told CBC‘s The Fifth Estate (Cruel Camera) that chimps separated from their mothers develop psychological scars common to abused children.

In an LA Times article, Goodall says that Clyde from Any Which Way You Can fame was trained with mace and a newspaper-wrapped pipe. And…“…the orangutan was caught stealing doughnuts on the set, brought back to the training facility and beaten for 20 minutes with a 3 1/2-foot ax handle. He died soon after of a cerebral hemorrhage.”

Tyler was the lovable chimp who spat at Kramer on Seinfeld, and Ripley was cast as an astronaut in the 2002 movie Race To Space.

The retired show business duo (joined by Ruben and Jimmy Joe) escaped from their unlocked cage at Zoo Nebraska in 2005. Ripley returned; the others did not. Police were called, bullets hailed, and the three chimps were killed.

Travis, another entertainment veteran (Old Navy and Coke), was shot dead in February 2009 after attacking his mother’s friend (chilling 911 call). Theories abounded (the victim’s new hairstyle, Lyme disease, Xanax), but Travis’ history in captivity was the proverbial elephant in the room. Ironically, Travis’ mom, Suzy, was killed in 2001 after fleeing her owners’ (who bred, rented, and sold primates) ranch in Missouri.

Primatologist Sarah Baeckler went undercover for 14 months (2002-2003) at Sid Yost’s Amazing Animal Actors (his chimps, Sable, Cody, and Angel, were in That 70’s Show) in California. She wrote:

The trainers use physical force to train the chimps and other animals as well, but they punch them, they kick them. They use weapons such as a sawed off broom handle that they called the ugly stick. They used them…to threaten the chimps but also to strike them. They throw rocks and locks and hard things at them; these are baby chimpanzees…. The events I witnessed horrified me. I am not exaggerating when I tell you I saw sickening acts of emotional, psychological, and physical abuse every single day on the job. You can’t create that level of control without abusing them.” Owing almost entirely to Baeckler’s evidence, Yost was ordered to retire his clients. Steve Martin, a 40-year veteran of animal training, counters: “You become the mother…. Cause it’s just like with children. Some people believe in never having any discipline and then some parents might think a swift smack on the butt might do this kid some good. So I mean who’s to say who’s right?

Because they soon grow too big (200 lbs and up) and too strong (3x an average man) to control, their careers are short. Washed up at seven, they face further exploitation through old age. There are over 2,000 captive chimps in American and Canada. The lucky ones find refuge at a sanctuary (Save the Chimps). For most, though, roadside zoos and research facilities. When questioned as to the whereabouts of one of his former actors (Kirby) by the fifth estate, Steve Martin had no answer. In fact, a caged Kirby was found begging for food in an Arkansas roadside zoo. Chubs from Planet of the Apes was videotaped eating dog food and rotten produce at a similar operation in Texas. And they may be there for another four or five decades.

Jane Goodall recommends euthanasia for those that cannot be rescued. As the largest supplier of exotics in the field (and one of the few who still has chimps), Steve Martin has offered to sell his remaining stock to sanctuaries. Otherwise, his lawyer writes in a letter to potential buyers, he “…intends to commence the breeding to explore and exploit the new business opportunities.” Shame on Steve Martin. Shame on all the breeders, sellers, and buyers. Shame on producers, directors, and actors. And shame on us (myself included) for laughing at their precocious antics, never bothering to ask who they are, how they arrived on stage, and what that life entails. Shame on the whole dirty, rotten, corrupt industry.