Sunday, February 24, 2013

This “strolling player” strikes a resounding chord about fathers

I discovered an actor yesterday. In the process, I also discovered a raw and heartfelt blog that I commend to my readers.

Richard Willis as Chorus
Yesterday, I saw a marvelous performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V, at the Folger Theater. While cascades of highly justified praise goes to the immensely talented Zach Appelman, I was just as impressed by the actor who gave a dimension I had never seen in Chorus. Richard Willis’ expressive use of the narrator role gave me a new insight into Shakespeare’s genius, and that is an achievement devoutly to be wished. Naturally, I wanted to find out more about this actor I had never seen, so I followed the links and, ultimately, found his blog, Strolling Player. As I scrolled through his posts, I came across one that is a year old, one that struck a resounding chord in me. Richard’s Ghost of My Dead Father brings emotions to the surface.

When I started Chimp Trainer’s Daughter, I wrote about the violence, abuse, and darkness that was much of my relationship with my father. In the process of blogging, I discovered two things: first, that fathers are complicated and our relationships with our fathers grow even more complicated after they are gone; and second, that many of my readers had been deeply hurt by their fathers and were left, like me, trying to figure out why. I discovered I was not alone.

Richard’s writing is equally a gift to theater lovers and to non-theater goers who want reassurance that they are not alone in puzzling out life’s conflicting threads of happiness and sadness, of disappointments and hope. His blog is also a gift to his daughters, who will always have these special insights into their dad.

An actor gives his audience a gift when he goes on stage. A writer gives readers a gift when he puts a coherent pen to paper. A father gives a gift when he offers a glimpse into himself. It is a pleasure to find someone who offers all three.

Bravo, strolling player.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Calling out TV "news" that promotes ape exploiters

How much responsibility does the news media share for the exploitation of great apes?

Iowa reporter Sonya Heitshusen cuddles Teco for the cameras.
The other day, I called Iowa news personality Sonya Heitshusen on the carpet for her insipid promotion of bonobo Teco’s new role as entertainer and money attraction for the Iowa Primate group run by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Iowa Primate was trying to get publicity for their newest moneymaking venture, public tours that allow cuddling with Teco, and Heitshusen was pleased to oblige. After her February 13 error-laden “news” segment on WHO TV, I added Heitshusen to my Hall of Shame. She misrepresented the facts and cavalierly dismissed those concerned about Iowa Primate’s disregard for ape and human safety. I was a little surprised when one ape advocate wrote that my criticism wasn’t “helpful to any attempts to get through to Sonya with another perspective…” even though my critic and others had already provided Sonya with the facts and that other “perspective.”

It’s time to stop giving the media a pass on shoddy reporting and self-promotion where apes are involved. Media personalities who insert themselves into the story and become public relations pawns for ape exploiters are part of the reason we are still where we are in captive ape issues. 

Heitshusen is just the latest in a rich tradition of news people using apes for ratings. Most people reading this blog certainly know how cute or amazing apes draw attention, and that fact isn’t lost on producers striving for viewership.

In the 1950s, Detroit TV's Sonny Eliot was a huge
promoter of the zoo's chimp show.
When I was a kid, viewers got a kick out of local Detroit weatherman Sonny Eliot cavorting with the chimps to promote the Detroit Zoo – and himself. As a zoo history book puts it, “Eliot’s reputation with the public is as a quasi-buffoon…” He used that buffoonery to convince the Michigan public that the chimps just loved their lives as entertainers. (No mention, of course, that the Detroit Zoo only kept the chimps for a couple of years before shipping them off to medical research facilities).

Eliot wasn’t the first or only person to discover that audiences liked to see their media personalities cavort with chimps. Baby boomers may remember J. Fred Muggs, the fun chimp on the Today Show, good naturedly playing with “co-star” personality Dave Garroway – until Muggs viciously bit comedienne Martha Raye. (Muggs had learned that he couldn’t be disciplined when the red “on air” light was on, and would often hit and bite Garroway.) After the Raye incident, Muggs was briefly replaced by Kokomo, Jr. The practice continues until today, at least on the WHO TV news shows.

Today Show chimpanzee Kokomo Jr  is
posed with John McAleenan.
The great comedian, W.C. Fields, is credited with the line, “Never work with children or animals.” That is true, if you don’t want to be upstaged by them. If you’re not good enough to attract your own audience, however, and need a cute ape to get more viewership, some media personalities evidently have no qualms about cuddling with them for the cameras… and perpetuating the exploitation by ape handlers like Susan Savage-Rumbaugh.

For background on Teco and the Iowa Primate group (I refuse to use their moniker “Learning Sanctuary, since they are neither) see Great Ape Trust.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What’s the difference between ape exploiters Rosaire and Rumbaugh?

What's the difference between Rosaire and Rumbaugh?

Pam Rosaire has trained chimpanzee Chance/Aiden to get cozy with humans, and exploits the chimp at party functions to raise money. 

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has trained bonobo Teco to get cozy with humans, and exploits the bonobo at party functions to raise money.

The only difference I can see is that Rosaire puts the headband on Chance, while Rumbaugh prefers to wears the headband herself. 


Update, February 17: While I was focused on the exploitation aspect of this ongoing spectacle, bonobo experts have a different perspective. I got this message from one of them, and I decided to include it here to illustrate the extent of alarm throughout the ape care community. (I've removed personally-identifying information.)

"OH my God Dawn... Where in the hell did you get those photos of Teco and Sue? facebook?... Geezus. Teco with that kid and the guy eating ice cream? I feel like somebody just punched me in the stomach. Herpes is the flavor of the day. Something really bad is gonna happen - like a kid gets their face bit up. I really can't comprehend this right now. They can't possibly be carrying a huge insurance policy when they are so strapped for cash... What's with the Pocohontas head band? And Greatful Dead T shirt? Sue looks terrible. Really unhealthy... This makes me so sad."

I try to keep news up-to-date at Great Apes Trust.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Six chimps in Virginia face uncertain fate

First, let’s look at the plain facts…

Curtis and Bea Shepperson have six chimpanzees, as part of their private animal collection at Windy Oaks Animal Farm. They have the same type of USDA exhibitor’s permit as held by the loony Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary. They also have the appropriate State of Virginia permit. BUT they only have county permits for two of the chimps: 15-year-old Toby and a younger female, Sierra. They do not have county permits for the other four.

In July 2010, two chimpanzees escaped from Shepperson’s Windy Oaks Animal Farm, which garnered the attention of Hanover County officials. The Hanover County Board of Supervisors gave Shepperson a two-year deadline to get rid of the four non-permitted chimpanzees, and then in December extended the deadline by six months.

Curtis Shepperson with one of his chimps
Credit: Joe Mahoney / Richmond Times-Dispatch
Shepperson wants to keep Toby and Sierra, but is willing to give up the other four. However, he has told reporters that he can’t find a place for the four. He has also said that county officials have raised the possibility of euthanasia as a final resort.

This is where it gets complicated, at least for me.

Save the Chimps, one of the world’s premiere ape sanctuaries, might take be able to take them later this year, but they will take them ONLY if Shepperson gives up all six – which he refuses to do. Save the Chimps has a policy that individuals giving up custody of chimpanzees must not engage in further commercial, entertainment, research, or pet activity with chimpanzees.

I understand the principle. I understand why Save the Chimps wants to remove all six chimps. But let’s think about this.

Shepperson has met all his legal responsibilities for Toby and Sierra. When he does that, doesn't he then have the same rights as bonobo exploiter Savage-Rumbaugh, to control his own apes? Doesn't he have the same rights as Penny Patterson, who turned gorilla Koko into an unfortunate freak of nature? Is there something I'm missing here? Besides the fact that Sue and Penny are part of the ape elite, and Shepperson isn't, of course. Are his apes more at risk than Kanzi or Teco or Koko or Ndume?

I don't mean to argue, I just want to understand – and I'm having trouble doing that.

Others aren’t as conflicted as I am. A highly respected ape community professional was firm in her conviction. “I do think that if Shepperson REALLY cared about his original two chimps, he would allow them to stay with the group and not split them up, especially if they have a solid chance to go to a good sanctuary like Save the Chimps,” she wrote. “Shepperson appears elderly, and his family will have to place them when he’s gone… so he is really not thinking of his chimpanzees by trying to hold on to the two.”

Shepperson appears to be boxed in. He can’t put them in a dumpy roadside show, even if the thought momentarily occurred to him. His agreement with the county two years ago provides that “any proposed relocation site shall be approved by experts associated with Project ChimpCARE, including, without limitation, Steve Ross."

One noted chimp expert told me that this is “a perfect example of the complexity that comes out of these pet chimp situations.”

As noted by the county, Ross conducted a site visit and made some recommendations for improvement – and Shepperson made those improvements. Ross insisted the males get vasectomized – which they did. But that is not enough, say several chimp care experts.

Good people are looking for an honest solution. Jen Feuerstein, chair of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA) has been engaged in regular discussion with county officials. The other NAPSA sanctuaries (besides Save the Chimps) don't have space right now but, Feuerstein points out, “all are aware of the situation, and are in regular contact with each other, so if anything were to change that would be quickly communicated.”

“The issues at hand are current lack of placement options, the desire to keep the group of six chimps together, and lack of funding for the chimps' lifetime care,” Feuerstein says. “I would characterize the lack of funds as the least of the 'limiting factors' but certainly funds can help alleviate space/capacity issues if enough is provided for capital improvements/expansion at a sanctuary.

I heard there's a possibility that the Animal Legal Defense Fund may challenge the legality of euthanasia for chimpanzees, if the county actually made the threat. I sent a message to ALDF, asking if that is true, but I received no response. 

Like everything else in this case, the question of euthanasia is complicated. If the chimps were in the wild, they would have endangered species protection, but the U.S. (in all its perverted reasoning) has decreed that captive apes don’t have those protections. Who gets to decide when a chimp can be euthanized? Biomedical research facilities kill their chimps. And I imagine owners can decide to euthanize as well. Can the animal control authorities?

I asked the county about their options, but received no response to my inquiry. In any case, it is hopefully a moot question.

“It is not my impression that the county is focused on euthanasia as an option, even though the possibility has been raised,” Feuerstein told me. “They are focused on finding suitable placement. I would characterize the county's representatives as extremely committed to finding a solution that is in the best interests of the chimpanzees.”

Another chimp expert maintains that "private ownership of chimps presents a public health and safety concern and I think this situation is no different.” 

“The only way the community will be safe from that risk is to move all of them... a solution which also addresses our animal welfare concerns," he explains. "Moving four of them solves nothing. It doesn't address the county and the neighbors’ safety concerns (there are still two chimps in the neighborhood) and it actually decreases the welfare of the chimps by splitting that group up.”

That, I think, is the most compelling factor. Chimp welfare. When I come right down to it, I have to think about what is best for the chimpanzees, who have relationships with each other. Sending them to a sanctuary will be tough on everyone – chimps and people – but hearts can heal if they are in good places. Like in healthy bodies that can run free on grass and bask in the sun, surrounded by others of your own species.

I hope that Curtis and Bea Shepperson will give the grass and sun to all six of their chimpanzees. They will find that their own hearts will heal faster knowing that their chimpanzees have each other.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary goes ape - and you can too!

A couple of years ago, Sara Gruen wrote Ape House, a novel that used the Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / IPLS as her inspiration. Today, Ape House became a precursor to reality, albeit mightily overstated. On February 1, the bonobos at Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary became public spectacles, subject to paid public tours and personalized “one-on-one” sessions for the rich.

(Please, can we stop the silly charade and drop the highly misleading “sanctuary” from the name? “Learning” should go, too.) 

You, too, can see how bonobo Kanzi has grown morbidly obese
I panned Ape House in my Amazon review, March 5, 2011: “After reading (and loving) Water for Elephants, I was really looking forward to this book. I had it pre-ordered from the moment I heard about it,” I wrote. “But I was disappointed. She touches on some important issues but the story line is weak. Okay, I get it, tough journalist meets sympathetic bonobo caregiver, and evil corporations seek to exploit human curiosity and, dare we say it, perversion. Unfortunately, it is difficult to empathize with any of the characters -- human or ape.”

In Ape House, the evil corporation puts bonobo Bonzi and his group on public display by using video cams to feature them in a reality TV show. Soon fans are lining up outside of their residential facility, salivating at the thought of seeing some of the bonobo sex that has been streaming onto their TV screens. At the real-life Iowa Primate, they haven’t gotten around to public access to video cams (yet), but they have opened up to public tours. And, for $3,000 to $5,000 minimum, you can get the one-on-one session. Whatever that is.

Several ape organizations allow public visits to their facilities, either by collecting “donations” or by wrapping it with a “membership day” moniker, so it would be unfair to castigate Iowa Primate for conducting public tours. The one-on-one sessions trouble me, however. I will leave it to the primate experts to discuss risks of transmission of germs and diseases, especially in view of Panbanisha’s death after she caught a cold. (BTW, where is that necropsy report?) I can raise awareness about other dangers. Based on the organization’s prior history of bites, accidents, and looniness (i.e., “scientists” believing that the bonobos and puppies speak in English), the rich patrons coming in for the one-on-ones might want to keep their fingers to themselves.

Some people are demanding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (America’s regulating agency) step in to stop this. USDA knows about this and condones it. In October 2012, Iowa Primate had an initial inspection in applying for a “public exhibition” license; they flunked it. (See the USDA inspection report.) The inspector wrote them up on six violations and required them to come into compliance with two more inspections, or before January 29 2013, or give up the fee for their exhibitor’s license. They have evidently come into compliance.

One more note. The pictures of Kanzi that lead this post have caused deep consternation among ape experts. Kanzi is morbidly obese, which isn’t good for any primate (including humans), but is especially bad for him because heart disease runs in his family. People want to know why USDA does nothing. I wondered the same thing. I try to give the USDA inspectors the benefit of the doubt, but that is impossible in this case. I had several conversations with USDA about Great Ape Trust / Bonobo Hope / Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary. This is the last message they sent me, on Nov 8 2012, after I renewed my request for a report from their Sept 2012 inspection: 
"There was no inspection report to speak of. A complaint had come in, so we followed our standard protocol and followed up on the complaint by looking into the matter. Our inspector visited the facility and conducted a very thorough evaluation, and found nothing that was out of compliance with the Animal Welfare Act regulations. The animals were each being properly cared for. This closes the matter for USDA."
If any of my wealthy readers decide to go one-on-one with an Iowa Primate bonobo, please let me know how it goes! USDA evidently isn’t interested. (P.S. Send pictures, too.)

For background on the Iowa bonobos, see Great Ape Trust.