Q: About a decade ago, you chose Primarily Primates’ chimpanzees, monkeys and lemurs to feature in art and on film. What inspired you?
In 2003, when I was looking for a new documentary subject to shoot, Primarily Primates invited me for a tour. While walking around, I found myself wanting to help the sanctuary. It quickly became apparent that the best way I could help was to begin telling the stories of these animals — giving people a window into the sanctuary’s efforts.
Q:What was it about the chimpanzee Oliver that sparked your interest in making the lives of captive chimpanzees as full and interesting as possible?
Over years, and many visits to the sanctuary, I’ve learned a lot about about these animals, especially the chimpanzees. Some were captured in Africa, forced to work in the entertainment industry, such as circuses, until they were no longer needed. Then they were sold to laboratories where they endured years in small cages.
One of my favorites, Little Boy, always seems excited and happy to have a visitor. He once worked in a traveling animal act and appeared on the MTV Music awards on stage with Bette Midler. His trainers ultimately sent him to Primarily Primates, so he avoided a life in a lab.
Other chimpanzees were born in cages and lived most their lives in labs, or were pets until they became too dangerous or expensive. This was the case with Buck, whose owner could no longer keep him. Today he lives at Primarily Primates in a large grass-bottomed habitat with other chimpanzees.
And then there was Oliver. Because of his strange human-like traits, he was once touted as being “The Missing Link” and had been featured in television programs like “Unsolved Mysteries.” Like many others, he had been captured in Africa, and forced into the entertainment industry until he became too expensive to keep. Eventually Oliver was sold to a laboratory and spent seven years in a 4' x4' cage. When the laboratory decided to release a group of chimpanzees to Primarily Primates, Oliver was among them. Oliver, mostly deaf and blind, spent the last few years at the sanctuary with Raisin, one of the gentler chimpanzees.
Oliver was a sweet chimpanzee who loved humans around him, and the animal care staff paid extra attention to him. A few years ago, I decided to raise funds to build a new grass-bottomed habitat in which he could spend the rest of his life with Raisin. I created Project Oliver and started to tell his story, in hopes that would raise the needed funds. A grassy habitat, like the six already at the sanctuary, would cost more than $100,000.
Oliver passed away before we were able to raise the funds, but now I’d like to honor him by building “Oliver’s Playscape,” that can connect up to five enclosures, allowing each group of chimpanzees to take turns in this grassy play and enrichment area. Many of these chimpanzees could live 20 to 50 more years. They can’t be released into the wild, but they should have as much pleasure as possible. Everyone involved will benefit from knowing they helped give a bunch of chimpanzees a positive experience — an enriching environment to enjoy the rest of their lives.
Q:What memories stand out from your filming of the sanctuary?
One day I heard a rolling sound, and saw that a capuchin had figured out how to roll a bowling ball back and forth over a peanut to break it open. On another day while walking in the Outback, I kept hearing a loud scraping noise. Approaching one of the chimpanzee habitats, I saw several chimpanzees pushing small helmets around the concrete floor as if they were children pushing small trucks.
A young chimpanzee named Deeter seemed to want some interaction, so I ran the outside length of the habitat, with him running alongside me, on the inside. We did this for five minutes or more, and he seemed to have great fun racing me. Today, Deeter is more rambunctious and enjoys throwing whatever he can my direction, including coconuts on Coconut Enrichment Day.
Q:You have filmed a wide range of documentaries and more than 50 videos of the sanctuary’s residents. What are your favorites?
A favorite video is “Helmet Skaters,” which I filmed after discovering the chimpanzees pushing helmets around their habitat. I also enjoyed filming the Eagle Scouts adding enrichment elements to Oliver’s habitat.
Q:As an artist and film producer, how do you push yourself to do what you haven’t done before?
In one film, “Team Everest: A Himalayan Journey,” I followed a group of people with varying disabilities on a 21 day trek to Mount Everest Base camp. That film took years to edit which put me in debt, but since completion it has played all over the world at festivals and on television. I receive positive comments from viewers it’s inspired.
Q:What future projects are you envisioning?
I have two documentary project works, and one feature film to shoot in the next couple years. I hope to finish shooting a more thorough depiction of Oliver’s life. Meanwhile, I’m editing a documentary about Sherpa who live in New York City.
Q:You once indicated your dogs come first. Explain that!
I have two dogs, Macie and Hannah, who are part of my family. I think dogs have feelings, much like humans and chimpanzees. I think I can tell when the dogs are sad by the way they look at me. “What do you mean you’re leaving? Weren’t we going to play ball? OK. Sure. I’ll just lay here on the couch and sleep.” I think dogs, like all (captive) animals, deserve to have as good of a life as possible, and it’s up to humans to step in and give them that opportunity.