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August 2006
Myth: Apes Make Great Actors

Chimps in Entertainment: That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore
By Sarah Baeckler with Charles Spano


Alamogordo, New Mexico seems an unexpected place for a reunion—and an even more unexpected place for a chimpanzee to find her freedom. In July, the desert town is blistering hot; the strange surrounding landscape barren from the years of missile testing. The shadow of Holloman Air Force Base looms. How ironic that here—where the original “space chimps” were experimented on—there could be sanctuary.

It had been a year since I had seen my friend Teá. Then, the baby chimp was working against her will as a performer for film and television. When I left the compound where I had secretly investigated the brutal training methods used on great apes in Hollywood, I could only hope that my undercover work would help to free her from a life of abuse. Now it seemed my hopes were realized. But was Teá really free? Would she ever overcome the misery of her early childhood and become a healthy, happy chimpanzee?

Chimp Actors
Chimps who work in film and television—mainly in low budget movies and cheap local commercials—are enslaved at the expense of their dignity, torn from their natural existence and regularly beaten into submission. Sadly, creatively bankrupt advertisers have often based campaigns on easy tropes and stereotypes that mock chimpanzees. Writers and producers stick them into films and TV shows when they need a quick laugh. Adam Sandler’s box office flop Grandma’s Boy featured a chimpanzee sidekick., Re/Max and GE recently put baby chimps into their ads. Both ER and The Today Show ran segments on chimp retirement, which seemed well-intentioned, but they missed their mark completely by featuring live chimps on the shows. Yahoo! recently held an advertising stunt in New York City where they attempted to show a crowd of reporters that their new tech tools are so easy, even a “monkey” can use them. They had people compete with two live chimps—The Yahoo! Tech Monkey Challenge—just this past May.

How pathetic that advertisers and producers these days are so strapped for ideas that they have to resort to tired ploys exploiting our closest living relatives. Whether they are ignorant or just don’t care, they are contributing to the abuse and mistreatment of these chimpanzees.

That “monkey” actor is actually a chimpanzee who has been cast into a life she never chose. Her peers in the wild are still living with their mothers, learning how to be normal chimpanzees, but she won’t get that luxury. Chimpanzees become too strong to be safely controlled at a very early age, so while she will probably only “act” until age seven, she will live another 50-plus years. Training practices can be extremely brutal; conservation messages about these endangered species are usually completely lost;?and retirement for these “actors” often means decades stuck in a substandard facility, condemned to a lonely existence, trapped in a tiny cage.

Behind the Scenes
Teá was born into biomedical research at the now defunct Coulston Foundation, a notorious facility, infamous for unprecedented violations of federal animal welfare laws. As a baby, she was sold to the entertainment industry and eventually ended up on television shows like Scrubs and That ’70s Show. I was hired to research the methods used by trainers on great apes in Hollywood, and spent over a year at Amazing Animal Actors.

The first time I ever saw Teá was before she appeared in any productions. She had a fiery, independent spirit. On my next visit, she wasn’t there and I was told it was because the trainers had a day-long “battle” with her. I later learned that all acting chimps are put through this “breaking of the spirit” where the trainers show the chimpanzees who’s boss. When Teá came back, she had a big gash on her forehead that required stitches and she was never the same.

I witnessed Teá and the other chimps in the facility endure brutal treatment and regular beatings by animal trainer Sid Yost, whose past included a conviction for felony fraud and a jail sentence for possessing a prohibited species. I saw Yost kick and punch these baby chimpanzees in the face, hit them with sticks and metal objects, and subject them to mental and psychological abuse. Even worse, this horrifying treatment of chimpanzees appears to be an industry standard. When I went public with my sworn testimony, I could only hope that my investigation would make a difference in the lives of these great beings who suffer for our amusement.

To some extent, it has made a difference. At least the process of taking action has begun. Film industry players who were previously unaware of the dark practices involved in great ape training have come forward to demand that Hollywood be compassionate and not stand for this abuse any longer. “Chimpanzees used in ads and shows are all babies snatched from their mothers,” says Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. “I chose to be in the movies but these animals didn’t. I don’t want to be a part of the cruelty.” Over 100 actors, writers, directors and producers have echoed Anderson’s sentiments. Movie stars Alec Baldwin and Christopher Lee (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings) are among those who have pledged not to work on productions with great apes, effectively boycotting the brutal practices required to bring a chimpanzee onto a set. Highly sought writer/director David Goyer (Blade) cut a scene involving a chimpanzee in his Batman Begins script when he learned what despicable conditions chimp actors face. Cameron Diaz, after working with a chimpanzee “actor” in Being John Malkovich, told Vanity Fair, “I won’t do movies with animals anymore.” TV legend Bob Barker insists, “do not go to movies in which there are animals because if you do you are subsidizing animal cruelty. When you see animals in pictures, you are putting them at risk.”

Even corporate America has begun to pay attention. After learning what goes on behind the scenes for great ape actors, Honda and cutting edge ad agency RPA jointly decided to discontinue a commercial with an orangutan. Puma and Keds also bowed to pressure and pulled ads involving great apes. American Apparel pledged to never use great apes in any of their advertising.

All it takes is a little education about the practices involved in training great apes, and ethical, socially responsible companies are ready to do the right thing. The movement to end the use of great apes in film and television has a tremendous amount of momentum right now. There are only a handful of great ape trainers left. One, Steve Martin, told the Los Angeles Times, “with computers and animatronics and such, there’s not as much demand for chimps and live animals anymore.”

Progress aside, there is still work to be done. Companies driven by profits and the bottom line—like Yahoo! and—still callously exploit chimpanzees in their ads despite being provided with expert testimonials by the foremost members of the primatological community, including Jane Goodall. Former chimp actors are scattered across the country, cast-off to substandard roadside zoos. And perhaps most disconcerting, backyard trainers with sordid reputations—like Maryland trainer Judie Harrison—hawk chimpanzees into low-rent appearances that put both the public and the chimps in serious danger.

If we want to make a change, we must hold these trainers accountable for their actions. A former chimpanzee trainer who had the courage to admit that his practices were wrong recently joined me and the Animal Legal Defense Fund in filing a lawsuit against Sid Yost. It could take years, but it is our hope that the courts will have the wisdom to find justice for these chimpanzees.

As I ventured to Teá’s enclosure at Save the Chimps, Carole Noon’s sanctuary in New Mexico, I wondered how Teá would respond to me. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. When I first walked up to her enclosure she saw me and immediately ran up to the fence, climbed to my eye level and looked completely shocked. I think she was surprised to see me at her new sanctuary home in Alamogordo. I was giving her a chimp greeting, panting and head bobbing and offering my wrist. She even pushed her lips through the fence to kiss me. Teá was still finding her bearings following the trauma of her childhood—just beginning the process of integrating into a social group. She was a little nervous around her new chimp friends, but I could see that she had made a lot of progress in her few short weeks of freedom. The process of healing had begun.

Several months after my visit, something remarkable happened. Carole Noon’s staff was able to reintroduce Teá to someone she hadn’t seen in over four years—her birth mother. Teá and her mother took one look at each other, they both screamed and then Teá leapt into her mother’s arms as she never had before with anyone else. They are now making up for lost time. An authority on chimp rescues and reintroductions, Noon is well aware of both the hardships and triumphs. “It’s a painstaking but rewarding process,” she says, “rescuing these chimpanzees from a life of abuse and returning them to normal social relationships with other chimpanzees.”

What you can do
Make advertising executives and film producers take notice. Every time you see an ad, TV show or film making use of one of your great ape cousins, contact the studio or the customer service line for the product being promoted and let them know you won’t see their movies or buy their products until they can think up a more creative way to sell their wares.

Sarah Baeckler is a primatologist whose research focuses on chimpanzee communication and cultures of captive management. After several years of working with captive chimpanzees in zoos and sanctuaries, Sarah spent 14 months undercover at a Hollywood animal training compound where she witnessed and reported on institutionalized abuse of chimpanzees by the trainers. Charles Spano is a director and producer of documentary films and music videos.

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