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.


  1. Long sigh. Desperate people do desperate things. GAT is in need of $$ asap. They will certainly use what ever method is at their finger tips which includes the media. Do you have the contact information for this reporter?

  2. As of yesterday, Feb. 24, the place has reopened for tours. There is an article about it in today's Des Moines Register. The whole thing just disgusts me to no end. Thank you for keeping on top of the issue.

    I feel so bad for the man who gave the huge donation to get the place up and running. He has since withdrawn any support but what a shame. He tried to do a good thing and it all went sour.

    1. He did not try to do a good thing. He tried to have some captive apes available when his plan for a rain forest theme park in Iowa cashed in. The rain forest project does not look like it is going to happen, so the apes became expendable to him.

    2. Ted Townsend should be held accountable. He brought these apes to Des Moines as a monument to his huge ego, found out SSR was a dysfunctional handful and full-time management/HR problem, then handed it off under the pretext that he was out of money.

      Didn't he wonder why Georgia State was anxious to get SSR out of their hair?

      There's a sucker born every minute.

  3. Here's a link to a post by one of the visitors. Since some of us protested and pointed out Kanzi has gotten quite obese since the caretakers were fired, she has removed the request that people bring M&Ms. But they're clearly letting Teco, who is nearly 3 now, interact with the crowd (masked, finally, thank God).

    Does anyone want to guess whether SSR has liability insurance in case he takes off someone's finger?