Primates and other animals used in movies, on TV or in circuses are coerced to behave unnaturally for our amusement. Some circuses greenwash what they do by claiming to breed endangered species. Generally, they ignore the key point of animal rights: Life matters but freedom matters just as much.
With current computer graphics technology, animals no longer need to be exploited in film. Many viewers are unaware of the conditions behind the scenes at circuses and on TV and movie sets.
During the climactic chariot race in Ben-Hur, for example, nearly 100 horses were killed. Incidents such as this provoked the involvement of overseers such as the American Humane Association AHA and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Nowadays we often see the statement: No animals were harmed in the production of this show. Yet there have been cases where animals have been harmed, even killed, but because it might not have been deliberate the closing credit avowal is approved.
In November of 2013, The Hollywood Reporter published a scathing investigation of the AHA that supports what Friends of Animals has been saying for years: AHA monitoring is inadequate so their disclaimer, “all animals were treated humanely,” is a sham.
Most people are unaware that the AHA is funded by the Screen Actors Guild, a glaring conflict of interest. AHA’s flimsy basis for judging the treatment of animals in films only entails the actually filming that happens in front of them, not the lengthy training, housing or living conditions of the animals. As a result, animals used in film and television are frequently put in dangerous situations, injured or killed.
Obvious physical harm is not the only form of harm nonhuman animals experience—they suffer psychological damage as well. For the primates at PPI, the longterm damage that is done results in negative and neurotic behaviors and an inability to socially interact with other chimps.
“Every young chimp you see in any type of entertainment was pulled from its mother prematurely. Sometimes chimps stay with their families their entire lives,” says Brooke Chavez, PPI’s director.
Trainers withhold affection and reassurance to teach tricks and behaviors, adding to the psychological damage from being ripped away from their families.
In 1986 five chimpanzee stars of the film Project X, were brought to Primarily Primates after a lawsuit against the film’s producers alleged abuse of the chimps by their trainers. When the filming ended, Twentieth Century Fox planned to sell the chimpanzees to a laboratory—a reprehensible irony as the lucrative film focused on a young chimpanzee’s escape from radiation tests in an Air Force laboratory.
Don Barnes, a sensible technical advisor for the studio, warned Twentieth Century Fox of the public outcry likely to follow a transfer of the chimpanzees to a lab.
He led the crusade to bring the chimps to PPI, and blasted the AHA, which defended the trainers and denied the abuse, giving their No Animals were harmed seal of approval.
Primarily Primates prepared to build a new enclosure for $65,000, but the film company offered just $35,000, so it took some time until enough funds came in and all five could be accommodated.
Two of the chimps, Willie, the star of the film, and Okko, are still alive and cared for 27 years later at the sanctuary. Willie still runs away in fear when he sees cameras.
Willie, 31, arrived with four other chimpanzees who were owned by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All had been trained to perform in Project X, a popular film about chimpanzees used for Air Force research. In the film’s story an air force pilot and an animal researcher risk their lives to save chimpanzees from hazardous experiments.
Willie was born at San Antonio’s Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research. Willie was raised by his mother only for six months, then removed to the lab’s nursery. He was transferred to the entertainment business around the age of three.
Willie’s significant ally is Okko. Willie’s grass-bottomed habitat is 60 feet long and 40 feet wide, alongside three other enclosures of the same attractive design—full of climbing structures and high ceilings, overlooking a pond.
The most joyful time of day at the sanctuary is the arrival of caregivers who carry wheelbarrows of carrots, lettuce, broccoli, apples, pears, melons, plums, bananas and other fruits and vegetables. A few chimpanzees typically sit high, waiting to spot them. Screams follow. Within seconds, a chorus of many more chimpanzees fills the air while they race around their habitats, hugging each other, or stomping the ground as though to say, “Hurry up!”
Okko was born Nov. 25, 1980 at the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands and was promptly put on exhibit.
As young animals reach maturity, they lose their entertainment appeal. The back door opens; used animals get sold to dealers. Thus was Okko traded away to a New York dealer, and sold again to Twentieth Century Fox. Okko was one of five chimpanzees used in the 1987 production of Project X.
Okko’s spot today is a 60-foot long, 20-foot high grass-bottomed space. Full of climbing structures, it overlooks the sanctuary’s pond. An imposing yet well-socialized individual, Okko has taken on the difficult task of keeping the peace among his spirited companions. Okko loves all fruits and vegetables—especially red apples and Romaine lettuce.
Walter and Baxter’s stories
Walter and Baxter, two especially handsome male chimpanzees, were once the stars of a German television show. In reminders of their tumultuous pasts, they do back-flips, clap their hands and put on smiles (actually all signs of training and fear of their owners).
Walter was born at New York University in 1992—at a lab for experimental medicine that is now defunct; Baxter was born in 1999. Both became property of The Buckshire Corporation—a Pennsylvania-based company that leases animals primarily for scientific and cosmetic testing.
The Buckshire Corporation leased the pair to a German television show called Martin’s Working Wildlife—which trained them to perform tricks for television audiences. When they reached an age where they were difficult to control, they were returned to the United States; and eventually they found their way to Primarily Primates.
They have new and interesting lives at Primarily Primates. In 2013 they were introduced to five females in an expanded social group. Walter and Baxter depend on each other for support and comfort though they explode with random expressions of emotions when excited.