Friday, December 28, 2012

Tarzan marks 100 years of unadulterated crap

“Many travelers have seen the drums of the great apes, and some have heard the sounds of their beating and the noise of the wild, weird revelry of these first lords of the jungle, but Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, is, doubtless, the only human being who ever joined in the fierce, mad, intoxicating revel of the Dum-Dum.”
In 1971, Joe Kupart depicted Tarzan
and one of the evil apes.

And thus, generations of young boys and girls were pulled into the false – and amazingly, crudely, racist – narrative of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seven-foot anthropoids (never called chimpanzees, but distinguished from gorillas) that use their fangs to literally satisfy their lust for blood. Tarzan of the Apes, pulp fiction written without a whit of understanding about apes, became a cultural icon and insinuated itself into the consciousness of an entire century.

No wonder we have so much trouble, today, emerging from the primitive ignorance of the last hundred years. How Hollywood transformed Burroughs’ evil apes into Johnny Wiesmuller’s darling little Cheetah, I will never understand, but after reading Tarzan for the first time this week I appreciate our generational confusion a little better.

Ape advocates constantly voice/post their anger and frustration at the slow pace of change in American attitudes. The exasperation with people who use chimpanzees and orangutans for amusement and entertainment is palpable… and disbelieving. I have shared that aggravation, often completely baffled, wondering how in the world any decent human can condone the exploitation.

Dad kept this photo of Detroit Zoo's
Jo Mendi II, one of the chimps he trained.
But then I glimpse at the photo I have on my wall, of a young Jo Mendi II, staring from the amphitheater facilities at the Detroit Zoo in 1950 during a training session with my dad. Like millions of children, I was entranced by the young chimps performing at zoos, in circuses, on local TV shows. We grew up with a misperception of who they were, what they needed, and, indeed, how their sad fates led them to life (and premature death) in research labs. Even now, unless a person happens across a PETA video or a Humane Society website, the adults those kids grew into probably still harbor false perceptions.

Rex Harrison with Chi-Chi
on the set of Doctor Doolittle
Many of us saw the 1967 version of Doctor Doolittle, with Rex Harrison. While we giggled at the chimpanzee, Chi-Chi, we didn’t realize that trainer Roy Kabat took six months to train Chi-Chi (and her three stand-ins) to cook bacon and eggs in a frying pan. Harrison experienced Chi-Chi’s problems personally. He wrote in his autobiography, A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy, “I know they say 'never work with children or animals', for fear, I suppose, of being upstaged by them. But in this case the animals behaved well in almost all respects – it was the animal trainers who should've been shot." After describing Chi-Chi as “terribly sweet and affectionate,” he explains that “suddenly, for no reason at all that I could see, her trainer gave her a wallop on the head. Poor Chi-Chi was so startled she turned on me, instead of on the trainer, and started to maul me, scratch me with her claws, and – worse still – bite me with her teeth.”

The entertainment exploitation of apes has gone on for years and years. (See ChimpCare’s Chimpanzees in Entertainment for many examples of the worst.) Indeed, the cultural misportrayal of great apes has infused our ignorance for a century, since Tarzan of the Apes was first published in 1912. It will take time to eradicate such a deeply embedded misunderstanding of apes, that has been reinforced by movies and books and advertisements and zoo shows.

I am as guilty of impatience as anyone. On January 3 last year, I wrote a blog post hoping that 2012 would be the Year of the Chimpanzee, and I started a “Year of the Chimp” Facebook page dedicated to it. In the blog, I listed six goals, none of them achieved -- although the National Institutes of Health made progress on getting the research chimps closer to retirement in the federal sanctuary system. One of my goals was to “shine the light on entertainers and marketers who exploit chimps for product promotions and profit.” It is evident that we will need to extend our Year of the Chimp through 2013, and so I’ve made that change to the Facebook page.

Actually, if we are real with ourselves, we will recognize that we need to extend educational efforts for another 20 years or more. We need to inform the people of my generation who grew up with the unadulterated crap of Tarzan and his ilk, unknowingly contributing to the exploitation of great apes.
“What a perfect creature!” Jane thought as she viewed Tarzan for the first time, Burroughs wrote. “There could be naught of cruelty or baseness beneath that godlike exterior. Never, she thought, had such a man strode the earth since God created the first in his own image.”
No wonder we all fell for Tarzan, king of the apes. Godlike! If only we could emulate the goodness that Burroughs tells us was the “hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.”

Times have changed. Now, we need truly good Tarzans and Tarzaninas, instead of a godlike fantasy. We need people who will rescue the apes from the humans, instead of the way Burroughs originally wrote his story… We need to transform Burroughs' manure into compost, to fertilize a new century of thinking.

1 comment:

  1. What you have said can apply to monkeys too