Chimpanzees in Entertainment

The chimpanzee Cheetah from the original Tarzan and Jo Mendi who appeared in movies and Broadway seemed to have paved the way for chimpanzees in entertainment. It all began in the late 1920’s as an innocent entertainment act; however it has now turned into normality for American culture. Chimpanzees are one of the most popular animals in show business, whether it is in the circus, movies, commercial, or advertising programs. Chimpanzees are humans’ closest living relatives and because of that they are fascinating and magnetically appealing. However, this popularity and attractiveness masks the often cruel and dangerous practices commonly required to make apes compliant in such appearances.

Chimpanzees bred for the entertainment industry are pulled away from their mothers shortly after birth. The actual removal is an extremely traumatic event for both the infants and the mothers. Infants, whom normally cling to the belly of their mother’s chest for the first two years of their life, will scream in fear. Once separated the infant is often placed alone or with other infant chimpanzees. Premature weaning, poor rearing, lack of emotional and social bonding introduces stress that affects the chimpanzee’s lifelong mental and physical health and development.

The advantage of breaking the mother-infant bond is that the infants will remain submissive; easily dominated and controlled by their trainers. By nature, young chimpanzees are rambunctious and easily distracted; qualities that are diametric to what trainers need if they are to deliver specific behaviors on cue. Consequently many trainers rely heavily on physical abuse and fear to ensure constant attention and compliance. This calculated abuse turns the chimpanzee into a fearful individual who will pay attention and cooperate if only to avoid further abuse.

This maltreatment begins right away, where in order to achieve alpha hierarchy as a trainer they must instill power and dominance over their chimps. Chimpanzees are trained to behave more like humans and less like chimpanzees. One of the earliest tricks that chimpanzees learn is “smiling.” This facial expression – mouth wide open, teeth clamped together and exposed – exists in natural chimpanzee behavior but usually expresses extreme fear. Since making this type of grin is an involuntary response which young chimpanzees can’t easily control, the process of learning to “smile” on command is long and stressful.

Over time, chimpanzees are introduced to more complex behaviors. As both the complexity of the tricks and the strength of the chimpanzees increase, the fear and domination tactics of the trainer become even more severe. Larger items (broomsticks, mallets, hammer handles, shovels, rakes, water hoses, and metal pipes) have been documented in several undercover operations as objects to hit and control chimpanzees.

Inevitably, as chimpanzees get older and stronger they also become unmanageable. Most chimpanzees are shuffled out of the entertainment and performing world by the time they reach 8 years of age, which means they will spend the rest of their 50+ years behind bars and in cages. The psychological and physical effects of growing up in the entertainment industry are difficult to alleviate even if the chimpanzee is rescued. They may never readjust to life in a normal social group.

The tendency of humans to relegate our closet living relatives as object of humor has hindered efforts to elevate their endangered status in the wild. A recent study by Steve Ross, Supervisor of Behavioral and Cognitive Research Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, reveals the chimpanzee’s presence in movies and television does great harm to studies of their conservation and protection in the wild. There is no justification for the use of chimpanzees, or any primate, in entertainment.

There is a concerted effort by the animal welfare community to end this degrading and unethical exploitation of our closest living relatives and promote change in the public’s perception of their role in nature. Certainly, any effort to elevate the status of chimpanzees, to recognize their close relationship to man, and to dignify their existence should begin with the elimination of their use in entertainment.

You can make a difference!

  • Write a letter to the producers or advertising agencies that are using chimpanzees.
  • Choose to boycott film, television and commercial media that abuse chimpanzees for profit (this would include greeting card, posters, magazines etc).
  • Tell your friends and family members about the abuse that these animals endure in this industry.
  • Support those sanctuaries that are able to rescue chimpanzees from these conditions.