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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

U.S. chimpanzee policy moves forward in 2012 (even though some great apes are left behind)

Progress doesn't come easy, but it is coming. The news from NIH on Tuesday, that over a hundred retired federal chimpanzees may be heading to a sanctuary instead of to another lab, marks a major milestone in America’s treatment of our great apes. That the Humane Society of the United States contributed half a million dollars to help build the needed facilities is a commitment that has earned my support forever. (Much more money is needed, and I hope you'll make a donation.)

Please make a donation to help build
sanctuary space for retired fed chimps.
This good news for the federal chimps is hopefully a harbinger of smart policy recommendations due from the committee looking at the eventual fate of a thousand retired federal chimps. The final report is supposed to be issued in early 2013, and I'm actually not dreading it.

But other apes don’t have a good future awaiting them. The bonobos at the Great Ape Trust (I've lost track, what is that organization calling itself these days???) remain subject to the nutsy anti-science bi-culturation pursued by former researcher Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. The older and fatter bonobos are probably suffering from heart disease, and poor baby Teco may be destined to repeat the tragedy of Nim -- who also slept with his female human nurturer, was treated like a baby human, and grew up confused and conflicted. (By the way, DO NOT MISS the superb movie Project Nim, on HBO tomorrow night!) We can only hope that bonobo experts will be available to help in the next couple of months when the Iowa Primate Research Center goes broke.

We pretty much have to give up on any hopes that the gorilla Koko will ever have an opportunity to live as a gorilla. Her life has been so warped she likely doesn’t have a clue what a gorilla is. But my heart really goes out to the other gorilla, so ignored by Koko's fawning media. After Penny Patterson’s newsletter asserted that she focuses on enrichment — “making a gorilla’s life in a captive setting as joyful, stimulating and healthful as possible” – former caregivers sent me some angry missives, explaining that it is much more critical “to get proper medical and dental care for Ndume, who has not been examined in more than 20 years since arriving at the Foundation.” Ndume is the male gorilla, owned by the Cincinnati Zoo, who lives in solitary confinement on the Gorilla Foundation premises... while Penny pretends that Koko wants to have Ndume’s baby.

I must stipulate that I don’t know if Ndume is hurting, but several former caregivers tell me that he shows pain when he chews. I passed the complaints to the USDA inspectors in August. After I filed a Freedom of Information Act request in September, asking what inspectors found, an APHIS representative told me that “agency employees conducted a thorough search of their files and have advised that Animal Care’s employees are still looking into your concerns… therefore no findings are available at this time. Moreover, we are unable to determine when the proceedings will be completed.” I filed another FOIA request for information on November 30, and I have received no information. Given the four months of delay, I truly hope that the caregivers are wrong about Ndume suffering from painful dental problems.

Robert Ingersoll, the primate researcher and animal rights activist who rescued Nim and others, was prescient in discussing the unsustainability of the small population of chimpanzees at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. One of the chimps, lovely Dar, suddenly died recently, and we wait to hear about CHCI’s plans to provide chimp companionship for their remaining apes. There have been reports about renovating the facilities and bringing in more chimps, but questions remain about the status of research and university support for a pseudo-sanctuary. Wouldn’t it be great if ignoramus Mike Casey would let his show biz chimps go to live at CHCI? It’s not a perfect arrangement, but it would clearly be a step up for all the chimpanzees, especially with the Clark County decision to deny a request to let Casey's chimps live in a residential area.

As we get closer to the end of yet another Congress that has not passed the Great Ape Protection Act, (even though the Senate committee made some progress), we realize that apes remain at the mercy of their owners, no matter how crazy or money grubbing. Fortunately, the U.S. has a great core of sanctuaries (that need more $$ support) and advocates (ditto) fighting for the health and well-being for as many animals as possible. I believe we also have an Administration that has made strides in developing better policies. All in all, 2012 has been a good year for many apes.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

I “heart” the Great Ape Heart Project


When you hear about the too-soon death of a gorilla or chimpanzee who had, by all appearances, seemed completely healthy, chances are they died of heart disease. They are so much like us – so of course they would share some of our health risks. On the other hand, they are different enough that we need to learn more about how to prevent, detect, and treat their heart problems.

Fortunately, one of the most important research efforts for great ape health is fully underway.

Gorillas at the National Zoo participate
in the Great Ape Heart Project
Based at Zoo Atlanta, the Great Ape Heart Project was established to investigate and understand cardiovascular disease in great apes. They are creating and maintaining a centralized database that can help veterinarians analyze cardiac data and coordinate cardiac-related research activities. Most importantly for the here and now, the Great Ape Heart Project is the central heart-related communications point for zoos, research facilities and sanctuaries where apes are housed. The data helps individual animals, even as the project establishes a database for future research. (A terrific web page explains how the gorillas at the National Zoo are participating in the project.)

Hayley Murphy, DVM, is leading the Great Ape Heart Project, which now involves more than 50 participants from over 30 institutions. It was organized by Zoo Atlanta, the Emerging Diseases Research Group of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, the UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Be sure to “like” the Great Ape Heart Project Facebook page, so you can follow their work. It’s a project that should be near and dear to our hearts.