Even animal welfare activists must get tired of playing the nag, judging from their decision to promote Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. On the evening of the movie’s New York premier, chimpanzee advocates are hoping to move in on Jackson’s spotlight to feature their ongoing campaign against the use of great apes in the television and film industries.
The idea is first to applaud Jackson’s choice to use only digitally animated apes—which are stunningly lifelike—and then to challenge the American Humane Association’s position that it is ever okay to use real ones for entertainment.
It’s not so much how the animals are treated on sets—the only time their welfare is governed by the AHA—but how they’re trained and what happens to them in the decades they can be expected to live after the filming’s over. Sarah Baeckler, a primatologist who spent over a year working undercover at one of Hollywood’s main facilities for training animal actors, says she witnessed the preferred method of instruction at some training compounds. Baby apes, she says, were punched in the face, kicked, and beaten with broom handles wielded like base ballbats. Beckler’s observations are documented in a report available through the Chimpanzee Collaboratory.
“We’re talking about an animal suffering incredibly for a laugh,” says Holly Hazard, executive director of the Doris Day Animal League.
But even if the chimps are trained in the most compassionate way possible, the entertainment world is cruel. Apes must be trained young, so they’re taken from their mothers—a separation primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall calls traumatic. “They have a long childhood . . . they are full of the joy of life,” she says. But when taken from their mothers they turn into “wizened, old-looking little creatures curled up in a corner.”
And when the apes turn six or seven (and become too strong to control) their lives really get bad. Activists say that when the film or T.V. series ends, apes are often “retired” to wretched roadside zoos or research facilities. In an open letter sent to Motion Picture Association of America president Dan Glickman, representatives of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and about a dozen other nonprofits have asked Glickman to throw his considerable weight behind their cause and declare a moratorium on great apes on the set.
MPAA spokesperson Gayle Osterberg tells the Voice that while it is true that technology is “playing an increasing role in reducing the use of live animals on the set,” the association cannot “dictate specific rules” to the studios other than to insist that guidelines set by the AHA are followed. Advocates can still hope.
“If the seven major studios took a position against this,” says Hazard, “then the ad folks might follow and then a sort of general collapse could follow because it would become socially unacceptable.”