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January 13th, 2010
Hollywood Chimps - The Debate

Most of the scientists who work closely with chimpanzees in their research are also sensitive to the species’ endangered status. A number of factors contribute to chimps’ precarious position in their native Africa: habitat loss, the bushmeat trade, and the pet trade. And some chimp experts also have concerns about how media portrayals here could affect chimpanzee survival abroad. Read on to learn about The Human Spark’s interaction with evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare and why he says it’s problematic to have chimps in the pet and entertainment industries.


Brian Hare and Alan Alda converse outside the chimpanzee enclosure at the North Carolina Zoo. Credit: Maggie Villiger

By Maggie Villiger

Part of my job as Associate Producer for The Human Spark is getting each person who appears on camera to sign our release form, which gives us permission to use what we film with them. To be honest, it’s usually the easiest part of my job! But when we filmed with Duke University’s Brian Hare at the North Carolina Zoo, he resisted.

Brian wanted to wait to grant his permission to air the footage we shot with him until we could guarantee that we’d used no “Hollywood” chimpanzees in our show. He’d recently had a bad experience with another film crew that did include Hollywood chimps in their program about human cognition, and he was adamant that he wouldn’t sign until he could know for sure that The Human Spark had not done the same.

So our crew left North Carolina with footage of a fantastic exchange between Brian Hare and Alan Alda – but with the release form unsigned. At the time, it just seemed like a speed bump, not a brick wall. The Human Spark had no intention of turning to stunt trainers to get footage – our interest is in the behavioral studies that respected scientists do with chimps, not tricks they can be trained to perform. We continued on our travels around the world, filming as we went.


A still from the opening scene of So Human, So Chimp with Alan and Noah the young chimp and Russell the little boy.

One of our most important scenes was the open of the second program, So Human, So Chimp.  Each Human Spark episode begins with Alan Alda setting up the hour’s theme by speaking directly to camera. In this case, the theme is that chimps and human beings share a lot of characteristics, but are also 6 million years of evolution apart. After hearing about a docile, home-raised chimp from another one of our experts, Series Producer Graham Chedd had an idea; he decided the most effective way to get this theme across was to have Alan introduce it while sitting with a young chimp and a young child. Filming with Noah, this young pet chimp who was well-accustomed to being around people, seemed like the safest and most responsible way to create this kind of compelling scene.

Cut forward several months. We needed to get that appearance release signed by Brian once and for all in order to broadcast the footage of him. But through email exchanges, it quickly became apparent we hadn’t fully understood Brian’s objections. He was OK with the material we had shot at zoos, sanctuaries and research centers because they are regulated by tough animal welfare standards. But featuring ANY privately owned chimp in the program would be enough for him to refuse to participate. And so we came to an impasse.

Infant chimpanzees are shot off their mothers backs in their African habitat and sold internationally – a trade that is threatening chimpanzees with extinction.

Infant chimpanzees are shot off their mothers' backs in their African habitat and sold internationally – a trade that is threatening chimpanzees with extinction.

Brian patiently explained his ethical objections to us. He believes that filming pet or entertainer chimps helps contribute to the illegal international trade in infant chimpanzees – a trade that is helping push this endangered species closer to extinction.  Brian worried viewers would get the mistaken impression that chimps make good pets; in fact, once they mature into strong and unmanageable adult chimps, virtually all of these animals are given up by their owners. Brian says some are even killed. There’s simply not enough space or resources to rehabilitate the hundreds of pet chimpanzees that are kept across the United States. Brian is troubled by the overall effect on the chimp species in the wild as well as by the suffering endured by individual privately owned chimps. Others agree, and in fact, major scientific, welfare and health organizations have policies against using privately owned primates in films.

Brian’s arguments were thoughtful and reasonable to The Human Spark team though he did concede that there is little scientific evidence that links TV portrayals of animals to the illegal pet trade. His group is currently conducting research into just this question so in future the debate can be informed by empirical evidence in addition to compassion for our primate relatives.

American conservation groups can appear hypocritical when they tell Africans not to keep apes as pets but U.S. citizens are allowed by law.

American conservation groups can appear hypocritical when they tell Africans not to keep apes as pets but U.S. citizens are allowed by law. Credit: Vanessa Woods

On the other hand, Graham pointed out how important the opening scene was to the film. Alan’s narration clearly included the facts that the differences between the child and the chimp would increase as they each grow up, and that the native habitats of chimps and their continued survival in the wild is in jeopardy. Graham also explained that the shot that follows this introduction is of Hondo, a full-grown alpha male at the North Carolina Zoo, lunging at his glass enclosure and scaring Alan. Graham felt the contrast between the cute baby chimp reaching up to Alan and the aggressive adult chimp trying to hit him, would powerfully transmit the idea that keeping chimps as pets is a very bad idea. He also added a line of narration that explains how Hondo was captured illegally in Africa as an infant, and shipped to the United States as a pet before he was rescued and eventually brought to the zoo.

We needed to come up with a compromise. Since all of us involved in this debate are in possession of our own human sparks, we called upon our sociability and ability to work together to move toward a solution. First, Graham made sure that Alan’s narration clearly explains the threats to chimpanzee survival posed by the bushmeat business and the illegal international trade in baby chimps. Graham also took out a portion of the opening scene where the baby chimp climbed up unbidden to hug Alan – it was undeniably cute, but in light of the points Brian had raised, Graham agreed that it might give the wrong impression.

Adult chimps can be aggressive and their strength makes them dangerous.

Adult chimps can be aggressive and their strength makes them dangerous. Credit: Vanessa Woods

Then The Human Spark production team arranged for Brian to take part in an ethics panel at a major nature film festival. Panelists discussed the use and abuse of animals in documentary films, and Brian was able to educate a vast group of filmmakers about the dangers of filming with privately-owned chimps. He even had a pamphlet [.RTF] ready for festival participants. So, as a result of our experience on The Human Spark, filmmakers are now better informed about the controversy surrounding the use of Hollywood chimps, and more aware of the possibility of unintended consequences.

Finally, we all eagerly agreed to post an explanation of this issue on the Human Spark website. By exploring the controversy and explaining our case study, we hope to get our viewers thinking about the issues as well, something that wouldn’t have happened if we had simply cut the problematic scene and moved on.

Read an article Brian Hare wrote for The Human Spark about why chimpanzees are not pets.

  • Debra O

    What a fascinating show. Well done. I just watched the show regarding simians. I found myself wondering, however, about our constant effort to assess whichever simian bassed upon our culture and our perspective. Understandably, it is difficult to evaluate cognition by any other standard, I can’t help but wonder if we are too biased by our view and our cultural perspective. What if we are viewing other species too much based upon our method of interaction? For example, we have two cats who clearly communicate with each other by means other than vocal, and means we probably can’t begin to understand. Just a thought. Love the show and Alan Alda’s inquiring mind!


  • Ian MacPherson

    I enjoyed this programme very much. I would like to read more about the topic. Could I please have the names of the scientists interviewed on it and whose experiments you discussed. Or, do you have reading list indicating some of their publications? Thanks.

  • Karl Hoff

    I always find learning about our world very interesting. To me it is very clear why we are so different from all the other creatures on earth. Through my understanding of them, we have miss that unlike the sea turtle and others like them that are programmed to know exactly what to do at birth, being that they never see or know their parents. They know to run to the ocean and where to go and what to do to survive and multiply at birth without any learning. We on the other hand know nothing and are programmed a blank and cannot survive without being taught. I believe what makes us human is that we being born a blank and learning from our unique experiences, which are all different. This makes us see other as different in the way they act or solve problems. In turn we are no longer able to follow the crowd and this results in looking at each other as constantly different. For us the crowd is the controls we gain for our parents and others controlling our behavior. The more of a blank, the more one can learn. If any animal can learn, this means they are not totally programmed. Because pets are reprogrammed to some extent, they carry it over as programmed material to the next generation, which humans do not do because they are born a blank. I cannot remember anything before the age of about 5 because I could not put pictures and sound and all the other senses to any thoughs because they were just pictures and sound and other senses. So our brains do not remember them whereas the animals are born with a full or part memory. As I see it, if we were born programmed and other animals were born a blank, they would be the intelligent ones and we would be the animals no matter what we looked like or how big our brains were. Thank you very much for your programs.

  • Kay

    Wonderful show, look forward to all of them in the series. I took my grandson (4yrs) to the zoo where they had a window much like the one on the show…the monkeys were new and young. One came to the window to study my grandson who was eating crackers. They looked into each others eyes and each touched the glass with forehead and hand. What were they each thinking? Grandson would have shared a cracker…monkey would have loved it.
    was it food the monkey wanted? Friendship? Comfort? What? Neither one showed any fear, obviously. But did grandson view the monkey as a playmate? Pet? Equal? I only know, he did not want to leave. We had to take his hand and lead him away.

  • Martina

    @Ian – That would be: Frans de Waal, Brian Hare, Mike Tomasello, Juliane Kaminski, Daniel Povinelli

    If you google them, this will likely lead you to their research group and there a list of publications can be found.

  • Sarah

    I really enjoyed the show! However, I did question one statement made regarding the ability to work as a team to acheive a common goal. The example was old footage found of two chimps working together to pull ropes to receive a treat. The scientist stated that you would not find two cats working together. It occured to me that cats hunt in groups which requires substantial team work.

  • Carol

    “He (Brian) was OK with the material we had shot at zoos, sanctuaries and research centers because they are regulated by tough animal welfare standards.”

    What silly nonsense. Not only is 2 year old Noah not a ‘pet’, but his owner is by law permitted by the USDA and must meet the same ‘tough animal welfare standards’ as all other permittees. She also did not ask for or receive any compensation for Noah’s participation in The Human Spark.

  • Brian Hare

    Dear Carol,

    If the private owner of Noah had to follow the same standards followed by accredited zoos, labs and sanctuaries Noah would never have been in a room with a young child. The U.S. needs a federal law against private ownership of chimpanzees (and other primates). This will help protect the public and these endangered animals in their native habitat countries. Otherwise – if U.S. citizens can have pet chimpanzees…then why shouldn’t Africans be allowed to take wild chimpanzees as pets? There is thriving (illegal) international trade in primates. If we want chimpanzees and other endangered primates to make it into the next century we must do everything to discourage this trade. I hope Noah’s owner and Carol will join the International Primatological Society, the Humane Society, and the AZA in trying to end the primate pet trade in this country and in Africa. There is nothing silly about extinction.

  • Claude

    Way to go Dr. Hare! But I still think the whole scence should be cut out. And that includes still pictures.

  • Dr J

    Private ownership of primates should be completly out lawed nationwide. As a rescue veterinarian I have seen more than my share of the effects of private ownership and subsequent abandonment. American arrogance is just that, “do as I say not as I do”. As a former researcher with primates, I say we should also seek to reduce the number of primates in research.

  • GIB S.

    i am waiting to see the series, but this blog really sparked my interest…especially Karl Hoff’s and Kay’s comments.

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    I enjoyed this programme very much. I would like to read more about the topic. Could I please have the names of the scientists interviewed on it and whose experiments you discussed. Or, do you have reading list indicating some of their publications? Thanks.

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