“I had no idea chimpanzees were so big!” is a common refrain we hear at Save the Chimps (STC) when guests, new employees, or volunteers encounter their first chimp. Many people envision chimpanzees to be small apes, easily carried in our arms. We see quite a few jaws drop when a 150-pound, four foot-tall powerhouse comes running in from an island.
Why are so many people shocked when they see an adult chimpanzee for the first time? Is it because they have never seen a chimp in person? Possibly, but the more likely explanation is that they have seen chimpanzees all too often: young chimpanzees forced to perform in the entertainment industry.
Although most of the residents of STC are veterans of biomedical research, 11 of them were once stars of stage and screen, used in circuses and film. However, it’s not as glamorous as it may sound. Chrissy, an 18-year-old chimpanzee, can attest to that. Born on December 20, 1994, at a Florida facility once known as “The Chimp Farm,” Chrissy was taken from her parents at the age of two and sold to an animal trainer.
She was then shipped to New Zealand, where she was thrust into the production of Babe 2: Pig in the City, portraying a pregnant chimpanzee. Never mind that she was still a baby herself and would not hit puberty for at least another nine years! The sudden separation from her mother, the long overseas journey, and the stress of being forced to behave in abnormal ways took an extreme toll on Chrissy. She became ill, to the point where even the trainer felt she might not survive.
When filming wrapped, Chrissy made the arduous journey to a private zoo in Alabama that had taken another of the trainer’s chimps, Freddy. At the age of three, Chrissy’s acting career was over. She likely would have been dumped by the age of eight anyway; chimps quickly become too dangerous to be handled by humans. Given that chimps live 40 plus years, a chimpanzee who can no longer earn her keep becomes an expensive liability.
The zoo’s owners nursed Chrissy back to health, and treated her as a pet (another issue for another column.) However, they also closed their zoo and found themselves with two chimpanzees who would outlive them. They contacted Save the Chimps for help, and in 2007, Chrissy and Freddy became part of the STC family. Chrissy’s birth facility, the Hollywood trainer, and the private zoo had all failed to commit to her lifetime care. But Save the Chimps is different—this is her forever home.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing even when Chrissy reached the safety of sanctuary. She had spent most of her life around humans, and had to adjust to living with other chimpanzees. She was smaller than most chimps her age, likely due to her childhood illness. She compensated with extra feistiness! Despite her small stature, the other chimpanzees treat Chrissy with deference and respect.
Chrissy also faced another medical crisis: the onset of seizures. Most of her seizures didn’t involve violent spasms. Instead, she would “freeze” in mid-motion, gaze blankly, and twist her head to the side. For a moment she would be unresponsive, a chimpanzee statue. Dr. Bezner, STC’s veterinarian, diagnosed these unusual episodes as absence seizures. Was the cause of Chrissy’s condition genetic, or was it a result of mistreatment or illness when she was filming Babe 2? We will never know. Thankfully, with proper treatment, these seizures have largely vanished.
Chrissy is not the first or last chimpanzee to suffer in the entertainment industry. Despite advanced CGI technology and increased awareness of the harm caused to chimpanzees used in entertainment, trained chimps still pop up on our screens. A popular photo circulating on the Internet of a chimpanzee with a white tiger cub is of a young trained chimp, not of a chimpanzee in a sanctuary as is often claimed. (No true sanctuary would put a chimp and a tiger together, never mind breed white tigers.) Trained chimps still appear in advertisements, movies, greeting cards, and on occasion, circus performances.
Thankfully, it’s quite easy for each and every one of us to help put a stop to this practice. In fact, due to public pressure, the use of chimps in entertainment is on a rapid decline. After all, the entertainment industry relies on us to make a profit. If no one watches a film or TV show with a chimpanzee “actor” in it, or buys products that use trained chimps in their ads, then the financial incentive to use chimps—and to train them—will disappear. Eyes on Apes is a great way to keep abreast of the use of chimpanzees in entertainment.
We can also throw our support behind films like Chimpanzee, which was made using documentary footage of chimpanzees in their natural habitat, or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which featured remarkable CGI apes. Instead of buying a greeting card with “smiling” chimps dressed in clothes (it’s worth noting that when a chimp shows all of his teeth, it means he is frightened), look for chimp-friendly merchandise from sanctuaries like Save the Chimps, or the Center for Great Apes, which has rescued more apes from entertainment than any other sanctuary in the United States.
As for Chrissy, these days she is living in a family with 25 other chimps, including Freddy and three other former “actors,” Teá, Sable, and Cody. She is a very spirited and strong-willed chimpanzee who has little patience for humans. She prefers the company of her chimpanzee friends, and loves being outdoors on the island home that they share. She has a large oak tree to climb, and a lovely covered bridge that offers shade and privacy. Chrissy likes her creature comforts, and enjoys lounging in a hammock or snuggling up to soft toys and blankets. Thankfully, her acting days are long behind her. Chrissy will never again be forced to be something she is not.