Screen Test


When the sci-fi movie classic “Planet of the Apes” turns 30 this month, the Santa Barbara Zoo will be going a little ape.

In a sort of life-imitating-art-imitating-life move, the zoo will show the movie Sunday inside the glass-enclosed viewing area of the lush, rock-lined gorilla compound.

Visitors will not be the only ones watching Charlton Heston encounter a world where apes are the master race and humans their slaves. The screen will be angled so the zoo’s three resident gorillas can watch too.

“We don’t know how they will react,” said zoo spokeswoman Kelly Rogers. “I don’t see them sitting down for the whole show.”


TV isn’t new to the gorillas--it’s considered an “enrichment tool” by zoo staff. When 480-pound Max, a 29-year-old silverback, arrived at the zoo two years ago, he first went into quarantine where he watched National Geographic specials. And just like the popcorn-eating movie viewers, these western lowland gorillas will have their own munchies. Keepers plan to leave some veggies up close to the viewing area.

It may not take much to coax a response from Max’s two younger companions, 7-year-old half-brothers who joined Max last year. The 150-pound youngsters ham it up next to the viewing glass, while the reticent, ominous-looking Max keeps his distance.

The “boys” sometimes perform, trying to balance atop a big ball. They aren’t shy about leaning right up against the viewing glass, or even lounging on the grass with their feet up against the glass.

“They are curious animals,” Rogers said.


Who knows what they’ll think when they see their counterparts talking, acting and dressing like homo sapiens in “Planet of the Apes”? The movie will be shown at 12:30 p.m. There is space at the gorilla viewing area for about 50 visitors at a time, but Rogers expects people will drift in and out.

The Santa Barbara Zoo isn’t the only one marking the 30th anniversary of the movie. About 50 zoos in the country will participate in this campaign to promote ape awareness and conservation. It’s spearheaded by American Movie Classics, which this weekend will air the movie and its four sequels, along with a special about how the movie was made.

Gorillas are a subject dear to the heart of Richard Block, the Santa Barbara Zoo’s new director. Block arrived from the Indianapolis Zoo two months ago, but in the early 1990s he headed the then Denver-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund for a short time.

Fossey lived with and researched the rare mountain gorillas of central Africa, fighting for their survival until her mysterious murder at her Karisoke Research Center in 1985. The movie “Gorillas in the Mist” is about her work at the Rwanda outpost.

The mountain gorillas are the rarest on earth, with fewer than 650 living and none in captivity, according to Block. The Fossey fund carries on her work, and although Block was its executive director, he never visited the Karisoke site. But during his eight-month stint with the fund, he worked to evacuate five researchers (four of them Americans) from Karisoke when civil war broke out in Rwanda in 1993.

As for the controversial Fossey, Block said, “Her heart was in the right place. Her problem was poor community relations. She intimidated and harassed local people.”

Santa Barbara Zoo visitors can get a feel for how Fossey lived. At the huge $750,000 gorilla compound, a winding walkway leads to a one-room hut, similar to the one she holed up in at Karisoke. An old-fashioned typewriter sits on a beat-up desk, along with an ancient microscope. Within easy reach is a hammock. On the wall is a 1922 framed article from the “Illustrated London News,” glamorizing gorilla-hunting.

“I don’t know how Dian survived as long as she did,” Block said.


From this raised hut, viewers can also look into the gorilla compound, but the best spot is the glassed area at ground level near a waterfall that trickles into a little pond. When zoo visitors watch “Planet of the Apes” there, will the gorillas and other apes depicted in the movie bear much likeness to the real thing?

At the time, the makeup artistry that went into transforming human faces into ape faces was groundbreaking. But it’s far from the real thing, Block said. A gorilla’s nose is very distinctive, and Fossey identified the animals by their “nose prints,” he said. “In the movie, those are not great noses.”

There’s another obvious giveaway: Gorillas can shed tears and yawn, but they don’t smile.


Santa Barbara Zoo will show the movie “Planet of the Apes” at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the gorilla compound. The zoo, in the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens at 500 Ninos Drive, is open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. $6 for adults; $4 for children 2 to 12 and seniors; free for children under 2. (805) 962-6310.