Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saving U.S. chimps from society’s scrap heap

I started writing this blog in March, 2011. It felt cathartic at first, but putting my father’s suicide and brother’s suicide into words opens private wounds to public discussion and, maybe, harsh judgment. But the process of writing has been emotionally exhausting. As anyone who has lived through an abusive situation knows, lowering your guard can be gut wrenching. Maybe it was time to stop. After all, who gives a flying fig about the family of a dead Detroit Zoo chimp trainer?
It so happened that Patti Ragan, founder and director of the Center for Great Apes, had invited me to stay at a cabin on the edge of the Center’s compound. I needed a chance to sort out my head, so I leapt at the opportunity to think and write in solitude, surrounded by Florida’s lush vegetation and the sounds of healthy chimps. As I walked around the apes’ maze of open-air living quarters and enclosed night houses, listening to their play and watching their interactions with each other, I got an unexpected gift. Patti, and the 44 chimpanzees and orangutans who found sanctuary under her devoted care, helped me make my choice.
We, as a society and as individuals, have a choice about how we treat captive chimpnzees and other great apes. We’ve always had a choice. My dad, and his generation of Detroit Zoo chimp trainers and officials throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and even the 1970s, made some very bad choices. Officially, on the record, they treated chimpanzees as money-making commodities that could be prodded or beaten for training purposes.

Brooks has a heart of gold
Patti made a different choice 20 years ago, when she used her own money to start a sanctuary for discarded chimpanzees and orangutans. As I write this, her community of apes is nestled into their sleeping quarters, and a night of quiet descends. The animals feel secure. For many of them, this is the first time they can trust their caregivers. Many bear physical and psychological scars of their past, but now their scars have a chance to fade. They aren’t on display to the public, they aren’t asked to do anything except what is necessary for their health and well-being. They can be who they were meant to be, as much as is possible for apes born into captivity.
Maybe one of the reasons people support the Center for Great Apes is because we can identify with the individual animals. Each kid who was beaten can identify with Butch, a former circus chimp. Every person who felt the abuse of neglect can identify with Linus, a “pet” orangutan kept in horrendous conditions. And, heaven knows, any adult who ever felt ugly can identify with Brooks, who must be the world’s homeliest chimpanzee – but who has a heart of gold. Any person who survived a bad life situation can identify with chimpanzees or orangutans living here. We know that no sentient being should have to go through what they/we did.
Yesterday’s chimpanzees sent to the scrap heap
Chimpanzees naturally show affection. They kiss and embrace. They clown around with each other and they show empathy. But the chimpanzees at the Detroit Zoo, most of them entertainers in the zoo’s famous chimp show, were not allowed to act naturally. They were confined in individual cages until 1971, not permitted to form bonds with other chimps, because they train best under sensory deprivation, relying on the trainer for every need. Astoundingly, in the 30 years between 1945 and 1975, the Detroit Zoo cycled through at least 92 baby chimpanzees. Detroit kept the chimpanzees for less than five years, on average, usually getting rid of them by the age of six or seven, the age when chimps (like human kids) start to assert themselves. The zoo abandoned any responsibility for the 50 years of lifetime care for all of those chimpanzees, except one.
The records show that during those three decades the Detroit Zoo sent only five – less than six percent! – of their discarded chimpanzees to other zoos. After “retirement” (what a sweet word, often masking life’s trash bin for great apes), the zoo sold too many to biological research labs. Three of their chimpanzees – Sammy, Bobby, and Chico, all younger than 10 years old – were even sent to Tulane University, where they were harvesting chimp organs and transplanting them into humans. I can't be sure how Tulane used Sammy, Bobby, Chico, so I've asked the people in charge of the Tulane National Primate Research Center to check their historical records. I'll let you know if they reply. 

Paying debts
Zoo attitudes changed in the 1980s. In 1983, former Detroit Zoo director Steve Graham announced that they were shutting down the chimp show and demolishing the chimpanzees’ substandard and sterile living quarters. “The Detroit Zoo was built on the back of chimpanzees,” Graham explained. “This was a way for me to pay them back.”
Zoos now are increasingly providing sanctuary to retired entertainment chimpanzees; and the growing private sanctuary effort is remarkable. I’m personally partial to the Center for Great Apes, where Patti Ragan is a soft spoken but fierce protector of great apes who need help. She is paying off so many of the debts we owe these animals. The chimpanzees and orangutans at her Center lead richer lives because of Patti and her dedicated crew of caregivers, board members, and supporters.
We have a choice about how today’s great apes are treated. Do we want them in commercials and entertainment, and as breeders for animal dealers? As Americans, we especially have a pivotal choice about the 991 chimpanzees sitting – this very moment – in biomedical laboratories. Do we push Congress to pass the Great Ape Protection Act, to give the chimpanzees in bioinvasive research a chance to live the rest of their lives in sanctuary?
If this blog can do anything to help inform peoples’ choices then, yes, it is worth the discomfort I feel when writing about my life as a chimp trainer's daughter. I hope to keep blogging until all chimpanzees are allowed to live in dignity, or until I have nothing left to say.
The Chimp Trainer’s Daughter blog will add to the growing chorus of voices demanding change. Maybe this is one small way I can help repay the chimpanzees who were beaten by my dad and his generation of trainers.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Murdering chimps for fun and food

Carrying the memories of death is difficult, especially if you are remembering the death of a loved one. Especially if it was a brutal death, and you witnessed it. Imagine how it might feel to reenact that death, over and over, for the amusement of an audience...
In 1931, a British film company, Pathetown Weekly, filmed a skit of two entertainment chimps. Look at this video newsreel, Monkey Melodrama. While you view it, keep in mind that these baby chimps were likely captured in Africa. They would have witnessed their mothers being shot before hunters dragged them from their mothers' corpses.
This is how one animal dealer/hunter described his first kill and capture (from his autobiography To Africa for Chimpanzees, 1951):
"...We suddenly came upon a family of six [chimpanzees] in a group of palms at the beginning of the forest and were able to get quite close to them without being observed. There was an adult female, two half-grown youngsters and two babies, one at the mother's breast and one hanging around her neck. The babies were exactly what I wanted. I worked my way carefully around until I could get in a good shot. The female dropped instantly. As we rushed forward, the rest scattered, with the exception of the little ones, both of whom clung to the mother."
Without the noise and smell of gunfire, the chimps in the video probably don't realize they are reenacting their mothers' death. Regardless, this skit should definately be filed under the tab "what were those chimp trainers thinking???" Even if the chimps didn't catch on, the kids watching this skit saw that shooting chimpanzees was funny.
Baby chimps in the wild still watch the murder of their mothers, and others. The adults are killed for bushmeat (eaten by humans), and babies are sold into black market pet trade. Read more about it at the Jane Goodall Institute.
(BTW, Pathetown Weekly, the production company, called it "Monkey Melodrama." Videos from the 1930s and 40s often referred to chimps as monkeys. They are not. They are great apes.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Missing moms

April 10, 1974 - exactly 37 years ago today - was one of the proudest days of my life. I graduated from the Women’s Army Corps basic training that day, as my company’s honor graduate. The Citizen’s Committee for the Army, Navy and Air Force gave me the American Spirit Honor Medal, “for the display of outstanding qualities of leadership best expressing the American Spirit: Honor, Initiative, Loyalty and High Example to Comrades in Arms.” I stood in the reviewing stand as G Company, Ft. Jackson, marched by and saluted. I stood straight, especially when the American flag passed by, but I couldn’t stop the tears from forming. They were tears of pride, and they well up as I write this now.
My platoon, my company, my country celebrated the preparation of young women ready to enter their new phase of active duty during the Vietnam Era. But not my family, and most importantly, not my mother. I received no word from her. No phone call, no card, and certainly no attendance at the graduation ceremony. Nor was she there for my wedding. Or for my high school graduation.
I am far from alone, I know, in not having my mom by my side for important, life changing events. So many women have to deal with even worse. Like the women who didn’t have their moms as they grew up, facing the day-to-day challenges of life.
Holly Draluck, a Facebook friend, recently wrote me about her trauma. Like me, like many of us, Holly thought, “going through it all seemed just like life.”
“I was a little child, just three years old - one of those little ones who desperately clung to her mom - when my parents divorced and I went to live with my Dad. Mom was not totally ‘stable,’ as the story goes, and she really believed that they would get back together.”
When the hope faded, Holly’s mom thought she could find a good husband to provide the home to have her girls back. It didn’t happen.
Holly’s mom killed herself when Holly was in college.
So many of us know what Holly feels when she talks about experiencing guilt, “and a very heavy ‘woulda, shoulda’ weight.”
But Holly turned her pain into something wonderful. For several years, she has led a growing global “Missing Orangutan Mothers” awareness campaign. On Mother’s Day, zoos and other organizations hold events to tell people about the challenges facing orangutans who have been orphaned in the wild.
“I think I formed an even deeper connection to orangutans by being able to relate to those little orangutans torn from their mothers, as I felt that same trauma,” Holly explains. “I know what it’s like. It was not a very conscious connection at first - but when I realized it, verbalized it, I cried.”
“It's funny how my life brought me to a love and connection to orangutans,” she says. “We all carry so much inside. When you look into someone's eyes, you can't always see it but it's in there.”
“I look into orangutan eyes and I see me.”

Orangutan centers throughout Indonesia and Malaysia are now home to nearly 2000 orphaned and displaced orangutans. The M.O.M. (Missing Orangutan Mothers) awareness events, held on Mother’s Day (May 8) at zoos around the country, bring attention to the plight of these beautiful red apes. Holly and Rich Zimmerman, of Orangutan Outreach, are encouraging zoos, animal facilities, groups and individuals around the world to hold M.O.M. events. If you want to attend an event near you, or if you can plan an event yourself, you can find more information at
Young humans and apes are hurt, often desperately, when their moms are missing from their lives. Thank goodness the world has people like Holly, who has turned that pain into something wholesome and good.

This chimp trainer's daughter salutes you, Holly.

Friday, April 1, 2011

For ladies only: This dress is cute... but on a chimp???

I’ve blogged about some heavy issues over the past month. Suicide, child abuse, animal cruelty, laughter and forgiveness. In the weeks ahead, I plan to reflect on what I call my 1970s era of the three Rs: rape, religion, and recreational drug use. But before we go there, I have to get something off my chest, so to speak. Today’s blog is for ladies only, so men should just move on. Go watch a baseball game.

Okay, are they gone? Can we talk?

Do you hate dresses, nylons, bras, and makeup as much as I do? I know I’m not the only one...

Aunt Elsie with her chimp, posing outside
of B'wana Don's in Ferndale, MI, circa 1950s.
Look at this little sweetheart with my Aunt Elsie. I don’t know why, but Elsie owned a chimp who she took to birthday parties and local TV shows. It couldn’t have been a huge moneymaker, so maybe she had the same urge that motivates some childless women, to nurture a cute ape baby who clings to you as if her life would end if you left her in a cage.

In any case, if you’ve been paying attention to this blog you’ll know I was not exactly a fashion plate in the 1950s. Plaid shirt with flowered skirt and white tube socks. Davy Crockett t-shirt and a babushka. And you haven’t even seen the worst pictures! So I really don’t have room to talk, since that chimp’s dress is kind of cute.

My point is this, however: As I grow ever closer to 60 years old, I really really HATE dressing up. After ruining my feet by wearing high heels for decades, I don’t even own a pair of pumps now. I loathe nylons. I long for the carefree days of the 1970s, when I could go bra-less -- and no one would even notice (!?#@!). I can’t wait to get home from work so I can get out of my business suit, and put on baggy jeans or a muumuu.  And make-up? Sundays are wonderful because I can go au naturel and no one gives a shit.

I look at that little chimpanzee who – if there was justice in this world - should be climbing trees completely clothes-free. She should feel the grass with her bare feet, forever and ever. Instead, my aunt put her into this frilly dress and stupid shoes. My heart is with that chimp. Be free, my sister!

As I think about it, though, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on Aunt Elsie. We used to love having her visit on Christmas, because she always brought wonderful presents. My brothers would get new shirts and pants, and she’d give my sister and me pretty dresses.

Oh. Now that I think about, that chimp’s dress looks vaguely familiar…
Why do people get a kick out of seeing an ape in a dress? Why do marketers know their ad will score big if they use a chimp in human clothes? For more on the use of chimps in marketing and entertainment, check out these video clips on ChimpCARE.