IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Group wants to end use of apes in movies

Some accuse group of failing to protect film animals
/ Source: The Associated Press

The “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer at the end of the movie has been part of the popular vernacular since 1989, when it first showed up in Paul Newman’s “Fat Man and Little Boy.” It’s even trademarked.

But animal-rights activists say the official-sounding phrase is nothing more than a hollow slogan when it comes to the great ape. Some are accusing the Denver-based American Humane Association, which grants the disclaimer to filmmakers, of failing to protect our closest animal-kingdom relative.

A coalition of primatologists, attorneys, scientists and actors are calling for an end to the use of apes in entertainment, citing the practice of separating infants and mothers, deplorable living conditions and abusive trainers.

They’re calling the campaign “No Reel Apes.”

The humane association is the only organization authorized by Hollywood to monitor animal use on movie sets and it gets $1.5 million annually from the film industry to do so. The AHA has sparked an uproar by declining to join the “No Reel Apes” campaign.

“They are the only regulatory agency that links care for animals to the industry,” said Nona Gandelman of the Jane Goodall Institute in Arlington, Va. “They have a foot in the door.”

All creatures great and smallThe AHA has been involved in the entertainment industry since 1939 when a horse was forced to leap to its death in a cliff scene during the making of the movie “Jesse James.” The group boycotted the movie, causing a public outcry and earning itself an on-set monitoring role.

The AHA looks out for creatures great and small, down to the smallest bug (precautions have to be taken to prevent insects from flying into the klieg lights). AHA safety monitors have unlimited access to sets working with the Screen Actors Guild and they review scripts for possible risks.

The AHA recently denied its trademarked disclaimer to the box-office hit “The 40 Year Old Virgin” because tropical fish died on set after someone turned off the aeration in the tank.

AHA officials say there is no conflict of interest when it comes to funding, since an independent board oversees the money it is paid by the film industry. They also say there is a proper place for apes in entertainment — almost always chimpanzees or orangutans — and that their role as safety overseers is too vital to risk by joining the “No Reel Apes” campaign.

“Rather than sign on that they (apes) can’t be used in entertainment, we can protect their safety,” said Marie Belew Wheatley, president of the association. “To walk away from that would leave producers to use apes and chimps with no oversight for their humane treatment. We feel that responsibility outweighs any interest in signing on to the campaign.”

The association’s only real power is the disclaimer and producers don’t have to follow the guidelines. The association can’t ban an animal trainer known for abuse from being used on set, though it can alert authorities if they see any abuse.

“Studios hide behind the fact that they have animal-welfare monitors on the site,” said Sara Baeckler , a primatologist with the Chimpanzee Collaboratory in Washington, which is leading the campaign. “The only way to give these endangered species the protection they need is to simply not use them.”

Gayle Osterberg, spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said the organization has spoken with the collaboratory to let it know they empathize with the group’s concern and that animal safety is a priority for the studios.

“The MPAA cannot, though, dictate rules,” she said, adding that technology is playing an increasing role in reducing the need for live animals.

The AHA updated its guidelines last month for safe animal use in entertainment. The primates section has been changed and now includes, for example, a request that producers consider the impact of separating infants and mothers and retirement plans for apes too old for film.

Supporters of the “No Reel Apes” campaign applaud those efforts, but say recommendations without policing authority is simply not enough and that much of the inhumane treatment occurs during training off the set, where the association lacks authority.

The campaign has released a report detailing a 14-month undercover investigation by Baeckler at the facility of Sid Yost, a prominent Hollywood animal trainer. Baeckler said she worked as a volunteer at Yost’s Amazing Animals and saw repeated abuse, including beatings with a sawed-off broom stick called the “ugly stick” and other tactics meant to inspire fear.

Yost vehemently denied all the charges.

“I don’t believe in beating animals. I wouldn’t be in the business if that’s what I had to do,” Yost said, noting his chimpanzees have their hands and feet rubbed with lotion every day, get gummy vitamins and play on gymnast rings and swings for entertainment.

Leonard Sigdestad, a veterinarian who treats Yost’s chimps at Loma Linda Animal Hospital in San Bernardino, Calif., said claims of abuse are the “farthest thing from the truth.”

“Those chimpanzees are treated better than most children are,” he said.

On Feb. 7, a federal judge in California denied the Chimpanzee Collaboratory’s attempt to get two of Yost’s chimpanzees, Cody and Sable, taken away from him, according to court documents.

Those who want apes banned from movies also say retirement is a significant problem. A typical career for a chimpanzee is a couple of years, but their life span is between 50 and 60 years. There are a handful of ape sanctuaries, such as Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Fla., where the apes live on 12 islands in groups of 25 per island. But the collaboratory said most Hollywood apes end up in roadside zoos or unfit facilities for four or five decades after they are no longer useful to their trainers.

“They are forced to do things that are not normal or natural to them and then afterward they are discarded,” Gandelman said.

Rob Shumaker, a primatologist with the Great Apes Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, said the problems with using apes in entertainment goes beyond their immediate welfare.

“There’s emerging evidence that seeing apes in movies gives people an anti-conservation attitude. People think they must be plentiful if they are able to be used for entertainment,” he said. “Apes in the entertainment industry is driven by one thing and one thing only and that’s consumer demand.”