More Than Sidekicks: Hollywood Must Ban Live Primates in Film (Guest Column)

Since “Balaoo the Demon Baboon” first appeared on film in 1913 to “King Kong” and beyond, anthropomorphised primates have been glorified in countless films and television shows. But what filmmakers, producers and audiences may not realize is that for animal “actors,” Hollywood is anything but glamorous. In fact, landing a leading role for a primate is usually a prescription for a lifetime in captivity.

Thankfully, recent technology that can digitize animals on film has changed the game. That’s not only good news for show-animals in captivity, it’s an opportunity for Hollywood to commit to putting an end once and for all to further abuse or endangerment of these remarkable creatures.

Abuse among animal handlers and “agents” is legendary. Training behind the scenes is severe in order to achieve obedience. Just as bad are the assumptions that fuel the exploitation: primates are happy acting as our silly sidekicks and an audience’s laughter is more important than the animal’s need to express their true nature and live freely. These depictions do even further harm by promoting the idea that wild animals are suitable pets.

Sadder still, once Hollywood primates age, they become too strong or too old to fulfill their roles — and they’re dumped by the wayside. That’s where sanctuaries, like Save the Chimps, the largest privately-funded chimp sanctuary in the world and where I serve as Director of Chimpanzee Behavior and Care, come in. These organizations take in chimpanzees, monkeys, orangutans and apes that served without consent in the name of science or entertainment. They need places like ours because they wouldn’t survive in the wild. When they do come to us, many chimps wear the scars of their work. Isolation typically experienced by actors or test subjects makes a chimpanzee ill-equipped to socialize when finally introduced to peers.

With the advent of computer generated imagery (CGI), the abusive relationship between great apes and Hollywood can end. HBO’s “His Dark Materials” utilizes CGI to flawlessly portray the relationship between Ruth Wilson’s character and her golden monkey. This begs the question, why did producers find it necessary to include a live capuchin monkey in the series “Ratched” when CGI could have done the job just as well, if not better?

I witness the many challenges that these former actors face every day in my work. We strive to provide the best care possible, but we’ll never be able to fully make up for the abuses in a chimpanzee’s early life. A public misunderstanding of these species in favor of seeing only their human-like characteristics has led to deleterious consequences for the general welfare of primates. By not understanding the specific needs of chimpanzees and other primates, we as a public, condone when we see primates taken out of their natural element and removed from their natural inclinations. We are entertained by a performing chimpanzee rather than concerned about the individual’s lack of a rich social environment or the ability to have freedom of choice. We also fail to realize the ecological needs of a species, leading to a public uneducated about the environmental imperilment that is universally faced by every non-human primate species. This is why using primates in film is an ethical line no longer worth crossing.

Save the Chimps is calling on the Motion Picture Association to stand up for primates who are unable to stand up for themselves and ban the use of primate actors entirely. It’s the right thing to do.

Dr. Andrew R. Halloran is the director of chimpanzee behavior and care at Save the Chimps, the largest privately funded chimpanzee sanctuary in the world.

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