Monday, March 28, 2011

Chimpanzee expert challenges this chimp trainer's daughter long-held beliefs

Baby boomers like me remember the zoos of the 1950s and 60s. Cages and bars, tiles and cement. We were amazed –- and maybe a little discomfited -- visiting the Great Ape House, with chimpanzees crammed in on one side, gorillas on the other, and both exhibits complete with hanging tires. The zoos of the 1980s and 90s were better but, heck, we were still vaguely uncomfortable with the conditions.

My last blog post bemoaned the conditions that zoo chimpanzees are forced to live under. It didn’t take long for me to hear from zoo folks who are creating a better existence for chimpanzees today, with brighter hopes for tomorrow. It’s only fair that I give them equal time to explain what accredited zoos are doing, especially those zoos active in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) that is responsible for what’s called a species survival plan” (SSP) for chimpanzees.

In the March 27 blog, I expressed my hope that zoos would stop breeding chimpanzees in captivity. Well, it appears the SSP is going beyond baby production.

Baby chimp Zoe was born at
Oklahoma City Zoo in October 2008
“The Chimpanzee SSP manages the population to have just a few births a year,” Steve Ross, the chair of the SPP, told me. “Lately that number has been about three chimps annually, and we haven't had a baby since last summer.”

And then he said something that really and truly impressed me.

“We have kept the birth rate purposefully low, as we have been making a concerted effort to open up space for chimps from the entertainment and pet industry. Working with Project ChimpCARE, we have brought 17 ex-pet and ex-actor chimps into the population in the past five years or so, including 14 ex-actors from a movie trainers facility last year.”

Steve is happy with how they manage the population… and I imagine the rescued chimpanzees are even happier.

He went on to explain why they allow chimpanzee births at all.

“We have a few babies from carefully selected pairs across the country, ones who we feel will be good mothers and whose offspring would be particularly genetically worthwhile,” he explained. “SSPs maintain populations as a hedge against extinction, but we're not breeding indiscriminately or at any great rate. Our chimps aren’t ‘popping out babies’ without due consideration.”

Steve admits that there are contraceptive mistakes at zoos, just like they have in very good sanctuaries, but these are very rare. There are 271 chimpanzees in the accredited zoo population and all but just a handful are in “contracepted situations.” That situation could be that the female had her tubes tied, the guy had a vasectomy, or it often means that the female is taking human birth control pills.(See, chimpanzees are more like us than you imagined!)

Ross went on to explain how zoos are improving the living conditions for their chimpanzees. I truly did not realize that they were taking such aggressive action.

 Houston Zoo's new chimp building is raising the bar
to a new standard of comfort and spaciousness.
“We have worked very hard over the past decade to increase the quality of chimpanzee enclosures by closing down chimpanzee exhibits we felt were substandard, and promoting new and improved environments such as the newest exhibits in Houston and Lincoln Park Zoo.”

“Is every AZA chimp exhibit mind-blowingly good? No way,” he admits. But, directly challenging my characterization of living conditions, he makes clear that “I think we have evolved far beyond being characterized as ‘concrete cages.’"

Finally, he explains how zoos are moving away from the traditional zoo management that I was familiar with.

“My colleagues and I conducted a study that showed that ape behavior in holding areas [off exhibit, which the zoo visitor doesn’t see] is different than that on exhibit.

“I used the findings from that study to advocate the system we use at Lincoln Park Zoo. The apes are in their spacious primary enclosure 22 of 24 hours a day – these are the spaces that are most enriched and complex – and our apes only go down to the smaller holding areas for a couple hours each morning. We have to rotate them so the keepers can clean their primary enclosures and scatter breakfast items.”

(BTW, scattering food items is a GOOD thing, as it makes eating a more enjoyable and sociable adventure for the chimpanzees…)

I believe Steve Ross. He convinced me that zoos involved with the chimpanzee SSP have worked really hard over the past decade to improve things. This Chimp Trainer’s Daughter is proud of the professionals who have moved so far beyond and above the practices from my dad’s days at the last century’s Detroit Zoo.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

We love our pets. Does that translate into respect for all animals?

Like many millions of pet owners, my heart breaks when a pet dies. I lost my gentle collie, Ali’i, to a brain tumor in 2009. My gentle 3-legged cat Mele died when she was 17 years old, last fall.

Is it my imagination, or were pets were more disposable back in the 1950s and 60s? My zookeeper dad certainly didn’t try to instill a love of animals in his children.
We had a puppy named Star. I barely remember him. He ran out into the street and got hit by a car.
I remember my Chicken Little. Back in the 1950s, getting a baby chick or a baby duck for Easter was a wonderful surprise, even in Clawson, Michigan, a suburb outside Detroit, where houses were packed in pretty close. Pet stores carried these delicate little darlings for suburban kids, with no thought of what we’d do when the chick or duckling became a chicken or a duck… if they were lucky enough to make it to adulthood.
Chicken Little stole my heart. I’d come home from school, step inside the front door, kneel down and knock on the floor, and she would come running to me, quick as anything. One day, I came home, and knocked on the floor. Nothing. Knock, knock. No Chicken Little. I found mom, to tell her something was wrong. Mom told me that Chicken Little had jumped into the toilet and drowned that afternoon, while I was at school. I was distraught, in tears, but I had no reason to disbelieve my mother. As a 6-year-old, I thought it was perfectly normal for a tiny chick to leap into the air, for no apparent reason, and land inside a toilet bowl and die. I never saw the dead chick.

I'm playing with my kitten in 1958.

There was another strange animal disappearance. My kitten was only with us a couple of weeks. One day, she was gone. It wasn’t until last month that my sister told me she saw dad throw the kitten against the wall. She thought I knew.
And then there was the time my family drove “to the country” (as suburban kids used to say) and dad saw a snapping turtle next to a pond. He stopped the car, ran and caught the turtle. After holding it up to show us kids, he killed it, for no reason, just the utter joy of being master of the universe. Animals were pretty disposable around my dad.
Why would dad think animals were anything that deserved human respect and compassion? In his job as a chimp trainer, he knew the disposability of zoo animals.
Most of the zoo chimps back in the 1940s and 50s were wild born in Africa, taken forcefully from their mothers (who were usually killed), and brought by a dealer to the U.S., where they were sold as 1- or 2-year-olds to zoos. The show chimps generally lasted only two, three, or maybe five years “on stage,” before they were unceremoniously dumped into medical research programs or breeding facilities, where they would live in inhumane conditions for 20 or 30 years. And the zoo would just order new chimps from the dealers.
Michael Jackson abandoned
Bubbles when the chimp grew up.
Ah, you’re thinking, those were the bad old days. Thank goodness, people don’t dump unwanted apes today! Ummmm…
You may remember Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s beloved chimp. Whatever happened to Bubbles? He is in a sanctuary now, the Center for Great Apes, where he is receiving all the love and care a chimp in captivity could want… with no thanks to the Jackson estate, I believe. Michael’s estate reportedly earned $756 million in the year after his death, but Bubbles’ upkeep depends on the kindness and contributions of strangers.
I don’t have any psychological training, but it seems to me that unthinking disregard and manifestations of superiority over animals are passed down through the generations, unless someone or something breaks the link. As an adult, my brother would flick his finger at a dog’s most sensitive nose area, for no reason, just so the dog – which he didn’t even own, by the way -- would know that my brother was boss. It seems likely that he learned this trick of abusive control from my dad – or from someone like him.
So, what do we do?
Zoos today are much better at keeping their chimpanzees for their full 30 or 40 or 50 years on this earth, but – and here I’ll probably tick off my zoo friends – I am conflicted. Most accredited zoos try to give chimps enrichment to fight boredom and to stimulate healthy behaviors, but it still seems insufficient to me. I wish zoos would stop reproduction in captive chimp populations. I love seeing a cute baby chimp as much as the next person, but I’m not sure we should have the right to breed them just to subject them to cement, cages, and human dominance for "exhibition" purposes for their entire life.
Many show business ape trainers today are still living in yesterday’s world, training animals with little thought to their emotional health. Great apes have the same rights as a piece of furniture. I believe great apes deserve rights to a dignified existence, but you can decide for yourself. This blog from National Geographic lays out some arguments.
Is someone around you abusing animals? The ASPCA can help.
And the complicated human part? Where we engrain animal abuse into the psyche of the next generation of abused children? We need to rescue those kids, and instill in them a respect for life that, as victims, they can’t totally buy into. If you know or suspect a child is being abused, go to Prevent Child Abuse America. Now.

UPDATE, 3/30/2011: Read how a chimp expert challenged my long-held beliefs. Steve Ross changed my mind.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The 21st century chimp: curing the common cold and bringing human fetuses to term

Thinking and writing about chimpanzees living in the 1940s and 50s makes me wonder how much we’ve learned since then. So I’m searching the “shelves” of for old books and reports that can help me understand what the experts believed 50 years ago. The books are starting to arrive and, judging from my skimming tonight, we’ve learned a lot. Still, some of the claims have an eerily familiar ring.
For instance, there are experimental biologists today who declare that bio invasive research MUST continue on chimpanzees, because the future holds such grand potential. I’m enthralled by a 1967 book written by “brilliant primatologist” (it actually says that in two places on the book cover flaps!) Vernon Reynolds. The brilliant Dr. Reynolds was giving the same pitch 43 years ago, and made a promising prophecy that must have given hope to many who read his book.
“There may well be as many apes in research laboratories in America, England, and Russia as there are in captivity in zoos. It is of course inevitable that this should be so. Most of the laboratory apes are chimpanzees… I list a few of the diseases in which research is being helped by apes: malaria, poliomyelitis, diphtheria, common cold, syphilis, whooping cough, heart disease, and cancer. In addition, one of the newest and potentially greatest uses of ape subjects is in the field of organ transplantation. Already chimpanzee kidneys have been used to replace a diseased human kidney, though as yet this technique is in its infancy and has not had any long-term successes. This is a rapidly expanding medical field, however, and it is reasonable prophecy that, by the end of this century, there will be many people alive only by virtue of the chimpanzee kidneys and hearts within their bodies; or people who have regained their sight by the grafting of chimpanzee corneas into their eyes. Chimpanzees may even be used to bring to term an implanted human fetus.” (I added the emphasis.)
It seems they hoped chimpanzee sacrifices would result in medical miracles, from curing the common cold to bringing fetuses to term. No wonder baby boomers are skeptical of today’s claims by modern medical prophets.

According to ChimpCare, there are 991 chimpanzees in U.S. biomedical research laboratories, today.
The Apes, written by Vernon Reynolds, “a brilliant British primatologist,” was published in 1967 by E.P. Dutton & Company.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What is Jo Mendi II thinking?

This is my favorite photo from my family's collection... Jo Mendi II was captured from the wild in Africa, I believe, and ended up as the star of the Detroit Zoo chimp show when dad was a trainer there in the 1950s.

In his human overalls, in the shadows of the caged training enclosure, Jo seems to pondering his fate. Did he remember Africa? Did he remember being torn from his mother, as most baby chimpanzees were (and many still are)?

What do you think Jo Mendi II was thinking?? 

Jo Mendi II, 1950
See Detroit Zoo chimps for more about Jo and the others.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The silence of abuse

When did you "hear" the silence? When was your AHA! moment?

Don’t you love being in a packed airplane when some kid gets upset and starts to shout and stomp, and throws one helluva magnificent tantrum? Yeah, me neither. I wonder if our chimp cousins feel the same when one of their group starts screaming. As it turns out, both species are superb at throwing a hissy fit when they are angry.
There are certain individuals, human and chimp, who rarely make a scene, however. Maybe you’ve seen her. She was that youngster walking on eggshells, afraid to show anger when she had every reason to. That was me and, I believe, my brothers and sisters, trying to walk gently, not complaining, not crying out, being careful not to make an abusive father mad enough to strike out.
Great apes in entertainment
learn early that it's safer to submit.
Why doesn’t that youngster SAY something to a teacher, a friend, a cousin? Why doesn’t she yell to high heavens? If she is like I once was, she is afraid to. If she says something, she is sure to get a whipping when dad finds out.
Little kids aren’t the only ones who fear their caregiver and suffer in silence. Apes in entertainment, the ones who are so adorable and smart and obedient and never throw a tantrum in public, can’t let the public see their pain.
Entertainment apes may be silent but, every so often, a person has one of those unexpected “aha” moments when she sees the evidence of suffering. A friend tells me of her moment, when she met one of the entertainment orangutans owned by Bobby Berosini. (See the article Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Film No Evil if you want a quick read on this disgusting animal trainer).
My friend, who is a registered dental hygienist in Las Vegas, prefers to remain anonymous (what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!), so I’ll call her Jane. Anyway, Jane tells me that in the late 1980s, she was working for a dentist who was a friend of the veterinarian associated with the infamous trainer (and abuser) Berosini.
One of the orangutans who performed nightly at the now imploded Stardust Casino had a tooth problem, and the vet asked the dentist if he would look at it.
“Orangutan teeth are like our teeth,” Jane explains. “They are not like dog or cat teeth. The teeth have very long roots, and they are larger than ours are.”
The dentist told the vet that he needed to do the procedure in his dental office. If the tooth fractured, he would need a drill and perhaps other instruments. So the dental team waited late one night for the orangutan to arrive.
“They pulled up in the bus they used to travel to the show every day,” Jane remembers. “The precious orangutan was wearing a silk robe and silk boxer shorts. He was adorable.”

In 1988, a dentist helped an orangutan after arguing
with the trainer who thought treatment would interfere
with their Vegas show.

After taking x-rays of the tooth, the docs told Berosini that the tooth was badly abscessed and needed to come out NOW. Jane was appalled by Berosini’s reaction.
“All he was worried about was that he was supposed to be in the show that night. Even when they explained the risk of infection becoming systemic – not to mention the orangutan’s pain – Berosini wanted to delay. Couldn't he bring him back, Berosini insisted, on one of the nights the show was ‘dark,’ as they say here in sin city.”
They finally convinced Berosini that it wasn’t in his interest to let the problem get worse, and they successfully removed the tooth. So, all’s well that ends well, right?
“What bothered me was that – for one thing – that orangutan had to be in terrible pain. How long had it been going on? I know sometimes with animals it is hard to know…” but Berosini was acting in character for many entertainment trainers. “This ass was more worried about making the animal perform. He wasn’t concerned with the orangutan’s comfort or well-being,” Jane discovered. Berosini was able to ignore the needs of his cute moneymakers because they were silent.
(BTW, after Berosini was caught on tape beating his orangutans, he was eventually driven out of business by PETA and others. “I'm glad his career was destroyed,” Jane says.)
In Serving a Life Sentence: for your viewing pleasure, primate experts explain why chimps – and orangutans – suffer in silence:
“… Many trainers rely heavily on physical domination and fear to ensure constant attention and compliance from their performers-in-training. Eyewitness accounts have documented the fact that some trainers pummel chimpanzees with their own fists, beat them with hammers, metal rods, and mop handles. Electric devices also may be used to shock them into submission. This calculated abuse turns the chimpanzees into fearful individuals who will pay attention and cooperate if only to avoid further abuse."
The degree of abuse may differ. I am reasonably sure that my chimp trainer father never used electricity on the chimps at the Detroit Zoo. He did enough with his fists and belt to get submissive and cooperative silence from the young souls – human and reportedly chimps as well – under his control.
Seeing an orangutan in pain gave Jane her "aha" moment. Have you heard the silence yet?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Looking back... and forward

My dad, Art Brown, was a Detroit Zoo chimptrainer
from 1948 to 1964.
Last week, Shawn Thompson, author of Intimate Ape, wrote a blog about my earliest memories of my dad and the chimps he trained at the Detroit Zoo. Reading A Daughter's Dark Tale of Abuse at the Zoo Chimp Show was a difficult step for me, but the support I received from friends -- and strangers! -- made it easier to bear. It hasn't been a big dream of mine, after all, to tell the darkest secrets of abuse and my dad's violent suicide.

Once I was able to step outside of my private fears, however, I heard important questions from Shawn's readers. What happened to Mike, the zoo chimp that was sent to the space program? Haven't conditions improved for chimps in entertainment? And more...

The reaction to Shawn's blog posting convinced me to explore the history -- both my personal history and the larger societal history -- of chimps in captivity. And then, going beyond the history, maybe we can have a conversation about present conditions and future aspirations.

Hopefully, zoos and entertainment venues will work with me and open their records, so we can approach the issues collaboratively. But even if they don't, there must be people who want to share information. I invite you to give me your thoughts. If you know someone who grew up close to entertainment chimps in the 1940s and 50s (and 60s and 70s), ask them to contact me at

Let's start a new thread of conversation, that can hopefully lead to a new life for the chimpanzees living today.