The Dark Truth Behind the Silver Screen

Written By: Tatiana Hayek/JGI Canada Volunteer
Category: Great Apes

Ellie starred in a 2005 Superbowl commercial that made her a media sensation overnight. You might remember her as one of the chimpanzees dressed in suits, rocking out to heavy metal music in a business meeting. Unfortunately, her fame did not extend to her endangered wild comrades. That’s because studies have found seeing great apes in unnatural environments on screen distorts public perception. After viewing apes with humans and/or in human settings, people are more likely to approve of owning them as pets, more likely to think their wild populations are healthy and stable, and less likely to contribute to their conservation.

While we saw Ellie as a friendly companion, she likely saw us as her captors and abusers. Though wild chimpanzees stay with their families until they are at least 8 years old, Ellie was torn away from her mother at birth. Unfortunately, this is common for ape ”actors”, and is only the beginning of a hard life in show biz. Naturally playful and mischievous, young apes often endure heavy beatings to rid them of their innate behaviors and force them to perform human-like actions on demand. The ape “grin” seen on screen is actually a grimace of fear. During their off-screen hours, apes may be forced to perform in other shows. When they are allowed to rest, it is often in squalid, cramped cages.

Chimpanzees can live to be as old as 60, but after about eight years of age they become too large and dangerous to manage. Having been taken away from their families as infants, chimpanzees never learn how to be a chimp. Therefore, they cannot be released back into the wild and often have too many social issues to be accepted into accredited zoos. Luckily for Ellie, she found a home at the Centre for Great Apes soon after retiring at the age of seven, but not all retirees are so lucky. Sanctuaries cannot accommodate all of the retired performers, so many are either euthanized or shipped to compounds where they are bred to produce more ape ”actors.”

Fortunately, stories like Ellie’s are becoming less common in North America as more people take action to stop the use of apes in entertainment. As of 2015, all captive great apes are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which means that any organization wishing to use them must explain how the work will contribute to their species’ survival. Combined with advances in modern technology, this makes it difficult for companies to justify the need to use live animals. Many highly successful movies such as The Jungle Book and War for the Planet of the Apes, have embraced state-of-the-art technology like animation, CGI and animatronics, as a responsible way to bring apes to the big screen. The top 10 largest advertising agencies in the United States have also pledged to no longer use great apes in their content. And the recent closing of the Ringling Brothers circus shows just how far North American public sentiment has shifted away from watching live animals perform.

Despite this progress, there is still work to be done. While public pressure has curbed the use of apes in North American entertainment, it remains a growing issue in other areas of the world such as Asia. Many apes forced to perform in live shows are wild-born, stolen from their families as infants and illegally imported. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that over 22,000 great apes, most chimpanzees and orangutans, were taken from the wild between 2005-2011 to be illegally traded. While it’s difficult to know how many of these apes ended up in entertainment, it’s safe to say that at least some of them are dancing or rollerblading for onlooking crowds.

Here’s what you can do to help put an end to the use of great apes in entertainment:

  • Exercise your purchasing power! Boycott movies, TV, live shows or other media that use live apes; instead, support those that adopt technology alternatives.
  • Urge companies to stop using apes by writing or calling personally, or signing group petitions like the Jane Goodall Institute’s #StopTheShow
  • Spread the word! Help educate others about apes in entertainment.

Together, we can make sure that our closest relatives aren’t modified from their original versions and formatted to fit our screens.

Learn more about other threats facing chimpanzees.

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