Civil Law to Apply to Probe of Alleged Chimp Abuse on Film Set

November 13, 1987|DEBORAH CAULFIELD | Times Staff Writer

An investigation by the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation into alleged chimpanzee abuse on the movie "Project X" will be evaluated under civil, not criminal, statutes in determining whether any complaints should be filed, the district attorney's office announced Thursday.

Since so much time has elapsed between the alleged beatings and the subsequent investigation last summer, the one-year statute of limitations on the most relevant criminal charges has passed, Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald H. (Mike) Carroll said in an interview.

"We felt the section on felonies to be inapplicable or inappropriate," said Carroll, who heads the district attorney's Santa Monica branch office. "However, the evidence was incredible and had sufficient validity to warrant taking a look at it under civil statutes."

The movie, which starred Matthew Broderick as a young Air Force pilot who saves a group of young chimpanzees from a lethal experiment, was filmed on the 20th Century Fox lot in Century City from December, 1985, through May, 1986. Reports of trainers allegedly beating chimps with blackjacks and otherwise abusing them did not surface until shortly after the movie's release in May, 1987.

The city Department of Animal Regulation last month formally asked that the district attorney file 18 felony counts of animal cruelty against six trainers who worked on "Project X."

The "Project X" investigation now rests with the district attorney's environmental crimes unit, and evidence will be examined under sections of the California Business and Professional Code prohibiting unfair or unlawful business practices, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lynch, who heads the unit. Violations carry civil penalties as high as $2,500 per count, Lynch said.

Depending on what the district attorney's office determines, charges could be filed against animal trainers and others, including the studio and producers Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, a spokesman said.

Parkes and Lasker could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for 20th Century Fox said no one was available for comment Thursday. However, the movie's producers, trainers and several animal rights groups have repeatedly denied that any abuse occurred.

In a related development, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner is considering a proposal to establish a department liaison to expedite prosecution of any future cases of alleged animal abuse in the entertainment industry, a spokesman said.

Animal rights activist and game show host Bob Barker called the decision to form the unit and continue investigating the allegations "a banner day." Barker first raised the issue of chimpanzee abuse last spring.

Robert Rush, general manager of the Animal Regulation Department, expressed some disappointment that criminal charges were not filed but said, "There's no question in the minds of myself or the district attorney that the officers assigned to investigate did an outstanding job, and I'm sure that appropriate action will be initiated from the environmental crimes unit.

"I'm pleased that the district attorney's office shares a common belief that we have a real responsibility in this world for stewardship over animals, including chimpanzees."

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