Goodall Group Calls for Curtain on Ape "Actors"

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.

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