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|Written by Alexandra Trottier|
|Thursday, 20 August 2009 00:00|
Animal cruelty has occurred throughout human history; however, with the advent of cinema these cruel actions have been brought to the forefront.
In 2002, primatologist Sarah Baeckler undertook a 14-month undercover investigation of the Amazing Animal Actors training facility, headed by the now infamous animal trainer Sid Yost. At the facility, Baeckler witnessed countless displays of abuse, including kicks to the face, punches to the back, and the use of hard objects such as rocks, mallets, locks, as well as an instrument referred to as "the ugly stick" - which was either thrown at the chimps or used to beat them. While unpacking a bag that had been taken along on a film shoot, Baeckler also found an electric cattle prod.
Though he was forced to give up his chimps, Yost is still cashing in as an animal trainer. The 2006 BBC documentary Chimps are People too (Dick Taylor) depicts host Danny Wallace interviewing Yost, now using the name 'Rick Kelly'. Denying the charges of abusive training, Yost/Kelly claims use only positive reinforcement techniques with minimal physical discipline, similar to what a parent would use on a young child. He also claims the trainers use only "love, patience, calmness, and consistency" as their methods of choice.
This is the same claim made by Amazing Animal Productions trainers. The striking resemblance in name between this facility and that of Amazing Animal Actors, the facility where Sarah Baeckler went undercover, is no coincidence; Sid Yost headed both facilities.
Yost's Animal Actors Teaching Zoo and Affection Training Centre is currently offering "Affection Training Classes". In a complete 180 from the 2002 accusations, the school's Web site states it has, "Over 35 years of experience in providing affection-trained Exotic and Domestic Animals..." Click the "Affection Training" link and you'll learn that all the animals are trained with "...love, respect and positive reinforcement". There's even a picture featuring Yost hugging an affectionate looking lion. This apparent overcompensation is prevalent throughout the website, with the words "Affection Training" appearing a countless number of times.
Over the years, other trainers have also been targeted with accusations of abuse. Animal trainer Steve Martin has been the main supplier of Hollywood's animal actors for years. In 2008, PETA found that Martin's Working Wildlife Inc. "failed to meet the minimal federal standards for the care of animals...established by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA)". He did not provide the veterinary and psychological care the primates required, and he would dispose of the chimpanzees by selling them through questionable animal trade publications and/or leaving them in poorly run facilities.Most people don't realize that chimpanzees rarely show their teeth in the wild, and only do so to express extreme fear.
In a letter sent out to animal rights groups, Martin's lawyer Warren Nemiroff has stated that while the trainer does not abuse or endanger animals, the activist groups' definitions of abuse and Martin's own simply do not match.
Martin's concerns seem to lie less with providing proper care for the primates than with the profits they bring him. In the same letter, Martin's lawyer clearly states that Working Wildlife Inc. intends to continue to breed chimps and orangutans. As the sole remaining supplier/breeder, Mr. Nemiroff states that the company has great opportunity "...to explore and exploit the new business opportunities."
Martin is more than willing to allow animal rights groups to take acquisition of the primates, but only a "serious proposal will terminate [his] future plans". In other words, Martin is willing to sell the chimps to the highest bidder. As stated in the letter "...power abhors a vacuum".
Despite the supposed "Affection Training" and denials of abuse, Sarah Baeckler has argued chimps are extremely curious, playful, and mischievous creatures by nature. The sole way to truly train them is to beat the curiosity out of them, and replace it with fear. This is best symbolized by the smile of a chimp. The silly exposure of their pearly whites is something audiences can't get enough of, but most people don't realize that chimpanzees rarely show their teeth in the wild, and only do so to express extreme fear.
Even if one could discover a humane way to train them, chimpanzees do not show independence until the age of eight, at which time they are viewed as "unmanageable" by trainers. Because of this, they have typically been removed from their mothers between the ages of 1 to 2 - through means of tricking, drugging, or even killing the mother. This has left mom (if she lives) and baby alike with lifelong scarring.
Retirement is usually a happy time in the human world, but for chimpanzees it only leads to more suffering. Having been taken away from their mothers at a young age and lived a life of captivity, Hollywood chimps lack key social skills - making it unappealing for city zoos to take on the burden of hosting retired primates. Besides, most trainers do not want to simply give away their "stock" without making some form of profit in return. Most of these animals end up spending their retired years in road-side zoos, where they receive little care in sub-standard living quarters.
What about the American Humane Association (AHA), the folks who let us know at the end of every screening that "No Animals Were Harmed..."? Where are they in all of this?
Taking a look at the Primates section of the AHA downloadable pdf. booklet, Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media, the words "should", "encouraged to", and "recommended" are perpetuated so many times that the guidelines read more like a list of actions that are frowned upon than a set of strict rules to be taken seriously. (Not to mention the many inconsistencies that appear in the document.)If you were beaten on a consistent basis, you too might learn what is coming if you don't display the desired behavior. AHA does not investigate the actual training process, and their assessment is based solely on what is observed during filming. Karen Rosa, director of the AHA's Film and Television Unit, states, "If we are witnessing good care, that's our focus. To make the assumption that when they leave the set they will treat the animals differently is not something we do... If you're treating [an animal] in training with positive rewards, then you're not going to come to the set and beat it with a stick and expect the same results."
I have my doubts. If you were beaten on a consistent basis, you too might quickly learn what is coming if you do not display the desired behavior.
While the story of Hollywood chimpanzees has been a tragic one, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As new reports surface, the public is becoming more aware of the issues, and new opportunities for a happy retirement are emerging. Organizations such as the Centre for Great Apes, Save the Chimps and Global Action Network are finding happy homes for these animals in sanctuaries where they can spend their remaining years properly housed, fed, and cared for, and with lots of space to run free.
To make sure these positive strides continue for all animals, primates or otherwise, remember to question what you see on screen. There is possibly a history of abuse behind the silly image that has been constructed for your enjoyment. If you are concerned by this issue, investigate further, write letters, and make phone calls. You can also give a donation to an accredited animal sanctuary.
I don't know about you, but after learning all this information the statement "No animals were harmed during the making of this film," leaves little comfort.
Photos from www.savethechimps.org
 Google: Steve Martin's Working Wildlife Factsheet
 Google: Steve Martin + acquisition of chimps + lawyer
 Google: Steve Martin + acquisition of chimps + lawyer
 http://www.friendsofwashoe.org/in_entertainment.shtml - click Chimpanzee Collaboratory, p.II
 http://www.friendsofwashoe.org/in_entertainment.shtml - click Chimpanzee Collaboratory, p.18
http://www.friendsofwashoe.org/in_entertainment.shtml - click Chimpanzee Collaboratory, p.7
 http://www.friendsofwashoe.org/in_entertainment.shtml - click Chimpanzee Collaboratory, p. 19