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HOLLYWOOD BRIEF / RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ

'Every which way but abuse' should be motto

August 27, 2008|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ

"With great apes, we're asking them to add that the AHA is not present for the training of great apes prior to the animals being on the set," says Lange. "People have a false sense that because the AHA is on set during a movie, that disclaimer means that everything is OK. It's not."

In 2002-03, primatologist Sarah Baeckler conducted a 14-month undercover investigation of Amazing Animal Actors, then a prime chimp facility, on behalf of a consortium of chimpanzee advocates including Goodall. "It was really rough," says Baeckler, now executive director of a chimp sanctuary near Seattle. "I saw a lot of physical violence. A lot of punching and kicking, and the use of the 'ugly stick,' a sawed-off broom handle, to beat the chimps. The youngest I met were 18 months old and were pretty similar to an 18-month-old human child. They were being kicked in the face and punched in the head and subject to all kinds of physical abuse to keep them paying attention and in line with the trainer."

Baeckler does not "think it has gotten better" since her investigation, and says it's perfectly plausible that a trainer would treat an animal well in public and mistreat it behind the scenes. "It's very similar to an abusive human relationship. The bottom line is: [Chimps] are super strong and super curious and super smart, and the amount of control that the trainers require to keep them paying attention and not misbehaving -- it's too much to be able to do with love and kisses. The way the trainers are able to control them is behind the scenes; they have this very brutal relationship including discipline when they misbehave, and random violence without any seeming provocation. That keeps their attention on the trainer."

Baeckler's consortium later sued Amazing Animal Actors and as part of the settlement, its proprietor, Sid Yost, agreed to retire his chimps. Yost did not respond to a call or e-mail. In fact, I called and e-mailed five trainers who work with chimps or have worked with them in the past, but no one answered my inquiries.

The practice of using apes in Hollywood could be eradicated fairly easily with legislation, or by agreements with the trainers or studios to refrain. PETA followed up Huston's letter with a request to meet with the studios, but only DreamWorks, MGM and Universal agreed. Lange says PETA has decided to make this species a priority because "the violence begins at birth . . . and [the chimps] live so long."

Watching footage of baby chimps right before they're ripped from their mothers is upsetting for any parent. And the chimp can't just get a prescription for Prozac or an hour of talk therapy. Entertainment seems a paltry excuse for mistreating animals.

All I can say is: Next time I see a chimp on screen, I just hope it's made of pixels.

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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