Pan Troglodytes’ New Status in Policy & in Films
by Jennifer Epps
Charles Darwin turned 204 this year, but his birthday didn’t make as big of a splash as Abe Lincoln’s (both were born February 12, 1809) because Darwin didn’t have a giant Hollywood epic movie playing in theatres. But those who champion what Darwin revealed, or who care about great apes and their intelligence, might want to look into the DVDs of several movies from recent years in honor of Earth Week.
All four great apes suffer when confined in captivity (over 3000 great apes are held in captivity in the U.S.); at the same time, they are disappearing from the wild due to poaching and habitat loss. Things are pretty serious for all of our great ape cousins, but it is our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, who have arguably had it the worst because in addition to other evils, they have been subjected to brutal experimentation in labs, abused by the entertainment industry, exploited by the pet trade, and even been sacrificed in space.
Fortunately, after many decades of struggle by their advocates, things are starting to look up for the chimpanzee, or Pan Troglodyte. At least it seems so judging by their gains in federal policy and public support, and the enlightened ways they have been depicted in several notable recent movies – an indicator of an improvement in how filmmakers think we see apes.
Chimps as Experimental Subjects
The U.S., the only developed country still using this species in invasive medical experiments, has now taken significant strides toward cutting down their use by labs. First, a December 2011 Institute of Medicine report commissioned by the National Institute of Health (NIH) concluded that ‘most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary’. A committee of experts then set about scrutinizing all NIH-funded projects making use of chimps. Within 9 months, the NIH authorized the retirement of 113 government-owned chimpanzees, and began transferring them to sanctuaries. Moreover, in January of this year a NIH task force of scientists, the Health Working Group, deemed laboratories unable to meet the needs of chimpanzees and called for a halt to the breeding of chimpanzees and a gradual end to existing biomedical research grants for projects with chimps. They recommended the government retire 300 other chimps from its labs, suggesting just 50 chimps be retained for possible future experiments.
This is long-overdue progress and will have a real practical effect on the quality of life of these chimps. This is clearly evident from footage this spring of freshly released NIH research chimps seeing sunlight and the outdoors for the first time after decades of incarceration. However, if invasive research and the keeping of chimpanzees in laboratory facilities is inhumane, then it’s just as inhumane for the unfortunate 50 chimps who have to stay behind. And Stephen Rene Tello, the executive director of Texas-based sanctuary Primarily Primates, has other concerns, since the government is maintaining ownership of all the chimps. “What happens if someone decides they suddenly need chimpanzees for research again?” Tello fears: “they’ll send them right back to the labs.”
Meanwhile, research on chimps continues in the private sector. While the efforts of animal protection agencies have raised awareness, and a string of pharmaceutical companies such as Idenix Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline, Novo Nordisk and Gilead Sciences, Inc. have promised not to use chimps in their research, there are still 950 chimps in labs in the U.S. being used as industrial test subjects.
Thankfully, a strong movement exists to persuade Congress to pass the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, a bill to ban the use of chimpanzees in invasive research (and save the Treasury $250 million dollars in a decade).
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a group that both opposes vivisection and advocates for human health (and whose legislative leader is Dennis Kucinich’s wife Elizabeth), is one of the organizations passionately campaigning for this bill, which has been introduced by allies in session after session. PCRM reports the encouraging news that the bill garnered record support in the 112th congress, with close to 200 co-sponsors in the House and Senate. Its supporters will be back to try again. The film world and Washington politics meet here, as James Franco, the headliner of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, also endorsed the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act in this PCRM video.
Chimps as Entertainers
The world of entertainment and policy intersect in another way where great apes are concerned. An international campaign is afoot to end the use of great apes as performers in entertainment (chimps and orangutans being the ones generally used) and it is spearheaded by tireless chimpanzee champion Jane Goodall, as well as by national animal advocacy groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The opposition stems in part from the fact that there is no way to police how the animals are trained – though the American Humane Association (AHA) monitors the treatment of animal performers while they’re on set, no-one assesses the techniques the trainers use in private to condition the animals to obey their commands. (And moreover, there are numerous criticisms of the integrity of the AHA’s monitoring operations, which have very limited authority and which are financed by the studios themselves.)
Plenty of incidents have been recorded of routine brutality toward ape actors, who begin their careers at very young ages, while they can still be dominated by human beings. The allegations of chimp abuse on the set of 2008’s Speed Racer are just the tip of the iceberg.
Primatologist Sarah Baeckler, who witnessed a culture of beatings of young performing chimps as a volunteer at Amazing Animal Actors ranch in Malibu, points out: “Healthy, young chimpanzees are playful, curious, energetic, and mischievous, but these traits don’t serve them well when training begins, so one of the things that chimpanzees in the entertainment industry have to endure is an initial ‘breaking of the spirit.’ In other words, they have to learn how NOT to act like normal chimpanzees.” Baeckler goes on to state that “abuse and physical violence are seemingly commonplace in this industry, and it’s not even a secret. In fact, it’s taught in a training school [Moorpark College’s Exotic Animal Training and Management program] that is currently producing many future animal trainers and zoo workers.” One indicator of how prevalent the abuse may be is the ubiquitousness of chimp performers ‘grin’ — far from being gleeful, that grimace on chimpanzees is an expression of fear.
When apes get older they are no longer manageable even by brutes (typically, an 8 year-old chimp is already too dangerous to keep), and so they are sent to live somewhere else, often a sub-par roadside zoo where their housing and care are inadequate and they are isolated and bored. (Decent, accredited zoos won’t accept them because apes in such zoos now live in group installations, and chimps reared among humans are at sea in the complicated dynamics of chimp society; they can’t protect themselves from the aggression of dominant chimps.)
If they are lucky enough to end up at an enlightened ape sanctuary, this places the burden for their care on the philanthropic animal-charity community. The trainers who profited off of them (and traumatized them) just go on to acquire other young chimps.
And there are even more far-reaching reasons to ban the use of ape actors.
A 2008 survey found that the public is less likely to think that chimpanzees are endangered compared to other great apes. This may well be partly because chimps are so familiar to viewers from their use in commercials, circuses, and on greeting cards. (The truth is all four types of great apes are endangered.)
A 2011 study by Ross et al. has shown the power of even simple imagery: participants who were shown photos of a chimp standing next to a human were 35.5% less likely to deem chimpanzees as endangered or declining than those who saw photos of chimps alone.
These images can also boost the pet trade: participants who viewed these photos of chimps coexisting with humans were 30% more likely to believe that a chimp would make a good pet. (Charla Nash, the Connecticut woman who was attacked by former-performer Travis in 2009, would beg to differ, since her encounter with the 200-pound male chimp resulted in her face and hands being ripped off; she is now blind, has had a full face transplant, and now has to live in a nursing home at age 57). )
Some celebrities have taken a stand against the use of ape actors in entertainment, like Angelica Huston, Alec Baldwin, Cameron Diaz, and Bob Barker. And public pressure campaigns have convinced numerous companies – including Capital One, Dodge, Pizza Factory, and Pfizer — to can chimp ads for good.
However, Career Builder has been for several years one of the most prolific employers of chimpanzee performers through its series of humorous, office-based, TV ads.
Even though the trainer of the chimps used in the ads has been excoriated for cruelty by animal activists –- and his first round of chimps has already been shuffled off to sanctuaries — Career Builder has taken a defiant stand for several years when faced with complaints against its ads. For example, Stephen Ross of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes in Chicago has submitted his objections to Career Builder every year since 2005 without receiving a reply. (This is in spite of the fact that a Duke University study found that the ads were not even very effective.)
But there may be some good news: in 2013 Career Builder refrained from buying air time during the Super Bowl, as they had so often done. It is still too early to tell whether they will stop using chimp performers.
PORTRAYAL ON FILM
And there is yet more good news, especially for those who care about film and its social impact. Listed below are five recent movies, straddling a range of genres, which depict chimps in enlightened ways which communicate that our evolutionary siblings are highly social, intelligent, and sensitive animals. Two of these movies are strong indictments against conducting medical research on chimpanzees, and none of these films utilize trained chimpanzees as performers. Instead they used performance capture, puppet animatronics, documentary file footage, patient nature photography, and claymation.
The filmmakers here often employ a shorthand which suggests that they believe the audience already has a high level of respect for chimpanzees, and that it is ready to believe in quite sophisticated simian abilities. This is very encouraging because it is surely an inevitable step from that belief to a conviction that chimpanzees deserve far better treatment from us.