Chimps on the Silver Screen

I don’t know why I continue to be shocked when I see a chimpanzee used in TV episodes, commercials and movies. The case against using apes in entertainment is quite compelling and something I think the public and Hollywood types would be sympathetic to, but perhaps it isn’t as well known. Unfortunately, this results in baby apes appearing on the silverscreen. Who are these chimpanzees? How many ape actors are there? Where are they bred? Who are their mommies? What does their thespian training entail? How long are their careers? And what happens to them when they “retire?”

All these questioned resurfaced for me when I saw the trailer of the new film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story featuring a “pet” chimpanzee. I went on the American Humane Association’s website, which monitors the use of animals on film and came across their position statement regarding the use of apes in filmed media. They strongly urge filmmakers to consider these ethical issues when deciding whether to use these primates in their production. However, filmakers continue to choose to use chimpanzees and other primates. AHA’s movie review of Walk Hard gives the film a “Monitored: Acceptable” rating. In addition to a chimpanzee, the film also features a bull, snake, giraffe, donkey, cow, horse, chickens and pigs. When I spoke with a representative from AHA, she told me that they are an independently funded organization and do not have the funds to monitor every scene in every production, but try to do the best with their resources to make sure the most important scenes are monitored. She told me that Walk Hard did not get the “No Animals were Harmed” label, because AHA wasn’t there to monitor every scene, but received the film credit “American Humane monitored the action”

This monitoring scheme is not reassuring not only for on-scene actions, but also what happens behind the scenes. It has no bearing on what it takes to train chimpanzees and how they are disregarded.

The following testimony provides information collected in an undercover investigation by Sarah Baeckler from her experiences at an animal actors training facility.

“The trainers physically abuse the chimpanzees for various reasons, but often for no reason at all. If the chimpanzees try to run away from a trainer, they are beaten. If they bite someone, they are beaten. If they don’t pay attention, they are beaten. Sometimes they are beaten without any provocation or for things that are completely out of their control.

I never abused any of the chimpanzees myself, but I was specifically instructed to hit or kick them at the first sign of any aggression or misbehavior. Since I wanted to learn how severe the abuse could get, I asked for advice on how hard the chimpanzees should be hit or kicked, and I got answers like these – and what you’re about to hear are verbatim quotes. One trainer told me, quote, “Hard enough that they know you mean business but not so hard that you do permanent damage.” Another said, “Aim for her head because it’s really sturdy.” And I heard the director of the compound say, “Kick her in the face as hard as you can. You can’t hurt her.” When I expressed nervousness one day about being bitten, a trainer handed me a hammer and said, “If you need to hit her, use this,” and he pointed to the handle end of the hammer.”

In article in Hollywood Today, Walk Hard lead actor John C. Reilly doesn’t seem to acknowledge the rough realities of his co-star.

“In one 24-hour period, I made out with a chimpanzee, Cheryl Tiegs, Cheryl Ladd and two Playboy playmates, in a 24-hour period. It was insane,” said Reilly with a grin…However, it was a little touch and go during filming with the chimpanzee he had to kiss. Reilly talked openly about his relationship with the primate and how they bonded. He said at first, he did the sweet talking scenes with the chimp, but that Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “The 40-Year Old Virgin”) didn’t think it played as funny. He was then directed to be angry at the chimp as if in a lover’s spat. He could see from the chimp’s eyes, that his feelings were hurt, especially after multiple takes. “By the end of it, he understood what was going on and we were really great pals.”

Reilly spoke highly of his primate co-star. “He went on to play ChimChim in “Speed Racer.” The chimp was the highest paid cameo in the movie. He’s a very talented chimpanzee and he’s got a great career ahead of him.”

However, it was reported that during production of Speed Racer, the chimpanzee bit an actor and there are allegations that the chimp was beaten as a result. PETA wrote to filmmaker Joel Silver about this:

“We’ve received several troubling complaints from people who have been on the ‘Speed Racer’ set and report the main chimpanzee ‘actor’ has been beaten and has bitten one of the human actors. We urge you to stop using live animals and switch to animatronics.”

Joel Silver’s response was:

“We appreciate the concerns of PETA. We also respect the vision and choices of the filmmakers with which we work. Every option on a film is carefully weighed, and for this production, the decision was made to use live animals.”

The question still remains, where is this chimpanzee now? Is he still performing? Will he be retired early? What does that mean? Ape actors are always baby chimpanzees, because they are small and easier to manipulate. When the grow up and become too strong to handle, their careers are over. They may be 8 years old at retirement, but could live up to 60 years. Some chimps have been sold to biomedical research or roadside zoos—not a glamorous Hollywood ending. Some are afforded sanctuary.

Let’s keep our eye out on this fellow. AHA directed me to Birds and Animals, the Animal Coordinators for Walk Hard. They are not answering their phones until after Christmas, but I hope to find out more about the fate of this particular chimp and his peers on the 26th.


~ by sangamithra on December 23, 2007.

One Response to “Chimps on the Silver Screen”

  1. Hi Sangu, will you update me after you contact Birds & Animals? I’d appreciate any info you come across.

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