I GENERALLY don’t want to be in any club that includes Pamela Anderson, which is part of the reason I’m often skeptical about PETA causes.
That said, I was horrified when I saw the latest documentary from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, about great apes in film and TV. The video was narrated by Anjelica Huston, who recently sent it to all the studios, along with a letter asking them to stop using the animals.
We’re talking primarily chimps, who have appeared in commercials and movies such as “Project X,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Evan Almighty,” “Planet of the Apes” and, of course, Clyde the kiss-blowing orangutan in “Every Which Way but Loose.”
According to “Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People” by famed primatologist Jane Goodall and Dale Peterson, the original “Clyde” was trained with a can of mace and a pipe wrapped in newspaper. He was viciously beaten the day before filming started to make him more docile. Near the end of filming the sequel “Any Which Way You Can,” the orangutan was caught stealing doughnuts on the set, brought back to the training facility and beaten for 20 minutes with a 3 1/2 -foot ax handle. He died soon after of a cerebral hemorrhage.
You’d think that 30 years would improve the lot of chimps. In some cases it has, as filmmakers like Peter Jackson are opting for animatronic apes or actors in ape suits. At least two high-profile trainers have been pressured out of the chimp business in the last few years by lawsuits or protesters. Yet some persist. This summer “Speed Racer” became one of the only films in recent history to earn an “unacceptable” rating from the American Humane Assn., the group that monitors the use of animals in films.
Now there are certainly moviegoers who will argue it was they who were mistreated by the Wachowski brothers’ candy-colored box-office bomb, but at least consumers weren’t physically manhandled. According to the AHA website, two chimps were used to portray the character of Chim-Chim (who performed such feats as driving a golf cart in the movie), and a trainer hit a chimp during a training session in front of a representative of the AHA. (Warner Bros declined to comment.)
According to PETA spokesman Lisa Lange, the organization had written to producer Joel Silver asking that the studio refrain from using a real chimp in the film, but had received a letter back from Warner Bros. stating, “We respect your viewpoint, but we also respect the vision of the filmmaker and decided to use live animals.”
Chimps are a lot like child actors, though their fate is often worse than ending up robbing convenience stores. According to the PETA documentary “Show Business Is No Business for Great Apes,” getting a baby chimp away from its mother isn’t easy, and the mom “must be tricked, sedated or forcibly restrained when the infants are pulled from them . . . and this cruel practice leaves lifelong emotional scars.”
TRAINERS need to get the chimps early, because after the age of 8 or so, the animals are too strong to be used safely in showbiz. But chimps can live to be 60 years old. And it costs $10,000 a year to feed and care for a chimp. There’s an overpopulation of captive chimps and a dearth of sanctuaries for the primates. According to PETA, too many former screen stars end up in squalor in subpar retirement spots. They point to Chubbs, who played a cadet trainee in Tim Burton’s 2001 film “Planet of the Apes” and ended up living amid garbage, maggots and feces at a roadside attraction in Amarillo, Texas.
AHA’s guidelines recommend that filmmakers opt for synthetic apes, for the same reasons as PETA. Karen Rosa, the director of the AHA’s Film and Television Unit, argues that “chimps should be with their mothers for the first five years,” and doesn’t believe the animals should be made to perform before the age of 18 months. She adds that some trainers go so far as to breed chimps willing to give up their babies, so a human trainer can jump in as a surrogate parent.
Given their limited resources, the AHA only monitors a handful of films shot overseas and only supervises animals during filming, not when they are training for films. “We’re a nonprofit. We’re not staffed to do that kind of comprehensive oversight,” says Rosa. “If we are witnessing good care, that’s our focus. To make the assumption that when they leave the set, they will treat the animals differently is not something we do. Animals need consistency. If you’re treating [an animal] in training with positive rewards, then you’re not going to come to the set and beat it with a stick and expect the same results.”
Yet, PETA says, the training is often where the great apes get brutalized. AHA is famous for its closing-credit disclaimer, stating “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.”
“With great apes, we’re asking them to add that the AHA is not present for the training of great apes prior to the animals being on the set,” says Lange. “People have a false sense that because the AHA is on set during a movie, that disclaimer means that everything is OK. It’s not.”
In 2002-03, primatologist Sarah Baeckler conducted a 14-month undercover investigation of Amazing Animal Actors, then a prime chimp facility, on behalf of a consortium of chimpanzee advocates including Goodall. “It was really rough,” says Baeckler, now executive director of a chimp sanctuary near Seattle. “I saw a lot of physical violence. A lot of punching and kicking, and the use of the ‘ugly stick,’ a sawed-off broom handle, to beat the chimps. The youngest I met were 18 months old and were pretty similar to an 18-month-old human child. They were being kicked in the face and punched in the head and subject to all kinds of physical abuse to keep them paying attention and in line with the trainer.”
Baeckler does not “think it has gotten better” since her investigation, and says it’s perfectly plausible that a trainer would treat an animal well in public and mistreat it behind the scenes. “It’s very similar to an abusive human relationship. The bottom line is: [Chimps] are super strong and super curious and super smart, and the amount of control that the trainers require to keep them paying attention and not misbehaving -- it’s too much to be able to do with love and kisses. The way the trainers are able to control them is behind the scenes; they have this very brutal relationship including discipline when they misbehave, and random violence without any seeming provocation. That keeps their attention on the trainer.”
Baeckler’s consortium later sued Amazing Animal Actors and as part of the settlement, its proprietor, Sid Yost, agreed to retire his chimps. Yost did not respond to a call or e-mail. In fact, I called and e-mailed five trainers who work with chimps or have worked with them in the past, but no one answered my inquiries.
The practice of using apes in Hollywood could be eradicated fairly easily with legislation, or by agreements with the trainers or studios to refrain. PETA followed up Huston’s letter with a request to meet with the studios, but only DreamWorks, MGM and Universal agreed. Lange says PETA has decided to make this species a priority because “the violence begins at birth . . . and [the chimps] live so long.”
Watching footage of baby chimps right before they’re ripped from their mothers is upsetting for any parent. And the chimp can’t just get a prescription for Prozac or an hour of talk therapy. Entertainment seems a paltry excuse for mistreating animals.
All I can say is: Next time I see a chimp on screen, I just hope it’s made of pixels.