Goodall Group Calls for Curtain on Ape "Actors"

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Channel
February 13, 2004
Chimpanzees make great on-screen comedians, whether wielding bananas
like cell phones, applauding new car designs, or trussed up in feather
boas, zealously overspending with stolen credit cards.

But the Chimpanzee Collaboratory—a team of attorneys, scientists, and public-policy experts in Washington, D.C.—headed by famed primatologist Jane Goodall, is launching a public-awareness campaign urging the entertainment industry to ban great ape actors.

The group argues that the removal of infant chimps from their mothers, the use of negative reinforcement in training, and the disposal of many animals in roadside zoos when they're too old to control, make apes' use in entertainment inherently problematic.

"The time has come to move beyond the misuse of creatures who are vulnerable to our exploitation, intentional or not, precisely because they are so like us," wrote Goodall in a letter to the Hollywood community in October 2003.

Childhood of a Chimp

By human standards, wild chimpanzees enjoy a very close bond to their mothers. Offspring and their mothers are inseparable during the first few years of the youngster's life. Young chimps are carried during the day as the mother forages and sleep with her in the same nest at night.

"When chimps reach age three or four, they start climbing and feeding on their own," said primatologist Anne Pusey, head of research for the Jane Goodall Institute, based in Silver Spring, Maryland. "But they still stick close to mom. It's a very tight bond." The animals will not be completely independent until age seven or eight.

A chimpanzee born in a breeding center or training compound in the United States is usually taken from its mother within days of birth, often forcibly—the goal is to transfer the animal's sense of attachment to human caregivers. Critics argue that, as a result, young chimps never learn how to be chimpanzees. Instead, instinctive behaviors like self-grooming and vocalizing, considered interruptions on stage, are carefully weeded out.

"Chimps are playful, curious animals with very short attention spans. They also have a tendency to play-bite. All of that works against them once training starts," said Sarah Baeckler, a primatologist who spent 11 months working in a training facility in Los Angeles before joining the Chimpanzee Collaboratory.

Great apes do not have a history of domestication, which makes them tougher to control than companion animals like dogs or cats.

"Chimpanzees are known for always pushing the limits of their trainers," said Roger Fouts, an animal behaviorist at the Central Washington University and co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, both in Ellensburg, Washington. He studies how great apes learn.

"I've been working with chimps since 1967 and have yet to meet an animal that is not willful, with an agenda all its own," Fouts said. Combine the obstinate mind-set with the strength of a seven-year old chimp—four to eight times as strong as an adult human—and that is a recipe for trouble, Fouts said.

Holding the Line

The American Humane Association (AHA), based in Denver, Colorado, is charged with monitoring the use of animal actors on both television and films sets. Their famous disclaimer—"No animals were harmed in the making of this film"—runs in thousands of movie credits.

The AHA Film and Television Office opened in Los Angeles, California, after a horse was forced to jump off a cliff to its death during the production of the 1939 film Jesse James. Public outrage spurred the effort to monitor the industry's use of animals.

According to an agreement signed in 1980, the AHA has the authority to be present during any production using actors from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG)—one of two major unions for actors in the United States. "Actors wanted to ensure that their names were not attached to projects linked to animal cruelty," said Karen Rosa, director of the AHA's film and television unit.

Many non-SAG productions also invite AHA on set, though there is nothing requiring them to do so. "Producers are interested in knowing their animals are protected, because it protects them from bad press," Rosa said. She estimates that in 2003 AHA monitored about 21 of the 35 projects in television and film that employed great apes.

"We don't cover reality shows. There are sometimes problems with those," Rosa said. Talk shows, soap operas, and photo shoots are also generally unsupervised, as are many commercials.

If the AHA is brought on set, they inspect facilities where animals are housed and keep an eye on stunts to make sure animals are not injured or abused. "If we have verifiable proof of cruelty, we will go to courts and push for prosecution," Rosa said.

However, AHA influence does not extend beyond the set. They have no oversight during the years of training that animals undergo prior to stepping in front of the camera. No one does. That means a film with the AHA stamp of approval might involve animals treated humanely on set after years of painful training, according to Rosa.

"We would love to be in a position to certify training compounds, recommend some while blacklisting others, but we don't have the funding or the jurisdiction," Rosa said.

Learning How Not to Be a Chimp

Rosa argues that training methods have improved dramatically over the last 20 years. The use of positive reinforcement has become widely utilized, spurred by a growing, society-wide concern for animal welfare both in captivity and in the wild.

"We believe many of the trainers working in the film industry today use humane training methods. But some still use negative reinforcement. We don't deny that," Rosa said. Negative reinforcement involves punishing animals with physical pain or deprivation if they don't perform correctly. "Its a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed."

The Chimpanzee Collaboratory estimates that of the 2,600 captive chimpanzees in the United States, 200 are used in the entertainment industry. About 60 are kept in the major training compounds used regularly by the industry. Of those, 20 are "stars" that are in constant demand.

During the 11 months the Chimpanzee Collaboratory's Baeckler spent working in a training facility in Los Angeles, she saw chimpanzees routinely hit if they became distracted or didn't perform a trick correctly. "It is naive to assume that chimpanzees can be compelled to perform complex tricks over and over again with simple positive reinforcements like a jelly bean."

Chimp Social Security

"The chimpanzees we see used in entertainment are generally youngsters. Once they reach puberty at six to eight years old, they become increasingly difficult to handle," Goodall said. That's when most are retired from showbiz. However, they can live to age 60 in captivity.

An adult chimp can cost U.S. $10,000 per year to keep housed and fed—a price that becomes unacceptable to most owners once an animal stops generating income.

A lucky few wind up in sanctuaries like the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care, which lies outside Fort Pierce, Florida, and is run by primatologist Carole Noon. "Other retired chimps are kept in cages by their trainers to be used as breeders, or they're sold to roadside zoos," said Noon.

Under U.S. federal regulations it is legal to keep an adult chimpanzee alone in a cage that measures 5 by 5 by 7 feet (1.5 by 1.5 by 2 meters) for the remainder of its natural life.

"There have been remarkable advances in computer graphics, animation, and robotics, so the film and television industries have viable alternatives to the use of great apes," Goodall said. But using those technologies can cost far more than hiring a live animal. Which means for now, animal actors are still in high demand.

For more on apes and other animals, watch Be the Creature, Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT in the United States, available only on the National Geographic Channel.

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