After animal trainers escorted two young chimps to the opening night showing of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” at a Myrtle Beach, S.C., multiplex theater, the publicity stunt was roundly condemned by officials of animal welfare organizations and primate sanctuaries. As well it should have been.
Was it cute and clever? Sure. A videographer captured every moment of the apes’ night out, two weeks ago, as 2-year-old Vali and Sugriva clambered up the stairs to the theater, clutching their trainers’ hands, turning over cash, themselves, to the theater employee, handing the ticket stubs to the ticket-taker, and slurping giant soft drinks through straws. (Of course they can do all that; chimps are the best tool users next to man.) The chimps are owned by the founder of Myrtle Beach Safari, a very hands-on conservation and wildlife park. (Without commenting specifically on this place, the current philosophy among respected zoos and sanctuaries toward wild animals is to leave them be, without human contact, in their exhibits or habitats.)
For decades, chimps were used in ads, television shows and movies, not to mention scientific research. But all those uses have declined dramatically as people have been educated about how inhumane and stressful it is for these animals to render that kind of service. Entertainment shows almost always use young, trainable chimps -- which means they have to be taken from their mothers and trained to obey a human. Chimps in the wild stay dependent on their mothers, often riding their backs, for at least their first two years, sometimes longer. Then when they age out of their usefulness in entertainment (by about age 7 when they are bigger, more independent and not so cutesy looking) they, hopefully, end up in zoos or sanctuaries where they often have a difficult time figuring out how to live with other chimps because they have been handled for so long by humans.
Chimps are endangered in the wild -- facing loss of habitat from logging and the threat of the bushmeat trade. But when people see them in commercials and TV shows or strolling through a movie theater, they think they’re not endangered and make great pets. They don’t. They are wild animals and tremendously strong. There have been several high-profile cases of chimp attacks, the most well-known one in California being the 2005 incident of two male adult chimps savagely mauling a man at an exotic animal sanctuary near Bakersfield.
Last year, the National Institutes of Health announced it would substantially reduce the use of chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical research and retire most of the chimps it owns. And many big companies have stopped using great apes in their ads. Pfizer pulled an ad with an orangutan for Robitussin and retooled the commercial with a computer-generated version of an orangutan. AT&T has pledged not to use great apes. Dodge and Career Builder stopped using chimps several years ago.
And here’s the ultimate irony -- the movie, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” used no real apes. All those apes were “played” by human actors and depicted on screen through motion capture technology.
Chimps don't belong in the movies or at the movies. If only human actors had played the chimps who went to the theater.