[As we hear the voice-over narration, a computer generated great ape sits in an isolated room, looking forlorn. The ape walks around the room restlessly. He approaches a table, which holds a revolver. The ape takes the gun, toying with it, and and then finally aims it to his head. Narration: “The great ape. He’s been forced to perform in television and in motion pictures for decades. Stolen from his mother at birth. Beaten and abused behind the scenes. He’ll end up discarded in a roadside zoo. Could you live this life?” The video cuts to the PETA logo accompanied by the URL greatapepledge.org. Text then appears: “No real apes were used in this commercial.”]
Animals, and in particular great apes, have played a central role in our film entertainment. In the United States, beginning in 1913, “jungle films” featured human actors with live animals. Prior to the film industry taking off, primates were a popular, common sight in carnivals or circuses. So the leap into film stardom was a natural one. The first major film to feature an ape was, of course, 1933’s King Kong. Audiences apparently love to see apes in movies.
But using apes in entertainment is exploitative and unnecessary. It’s exploitative because, as the PETA ad above correctly states, when a primate appears in a film, that animal has surely been taken from his or her mother, abused, and will ultimately be discarded when it is too mature to be handled. In fact, an ape may be taken away from his or her mother at merely weeks old; after reaching an age between 6 to 8 years, the ape is then no longer considered usable. But what about the rest of his or her life? For example, a chimpanzee can live over 60 years in captivity. No longer useful to the film industry, but with many years still ahead of him or her, the discarded ape is almost certainly destined for a terrible life which may include biomedical research or roadside zoos.
But it does not have to be this way. Using apes in entertainment is unnecessary with the current technology (such as performance capture) available to filmmakers. For example, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (hereinafter “Rise”) received much acclaim for its incredibly lifelike apes. Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise, explained why he chose to use performance capture instead of live animals: “In order to do what we need to do with them [in the film], you’d need to dominate and exploit them. I’d like to think that hopefully with performance-capture, we can bypass that and keep apes in the wild.” In another statement, Wyatt aptly says, “[I]t would have been a bit of an irony to be telling the story of our most exploited and closest cousins, and use live apes to tell that story.” Another option for filmmakers is using human actors instead of live apes; for example, Peter Elliot has very successfully portrayed primates in film.
The success of Rise should have encouraged the entertainment industry to reduce its use of live animals, but Hollywood has seemingly been slow to catch on. Unfortunately, there have been many recent films and television shows which have found themselves under criticism for the harm or death of the animals they used during production: 2012’s The Hobbit; 2012’s TV show “Luck“; 2011’s “Zookeeper“; 2011’s “Water for Elephants“; 2011’s “The Hangover Part II“; 2006’s “Flicka“. This is not an exhaustive list!
Hopefully, this PETA ad will reach a wide audience, sparking conversation about animal exploitation. And hopefully this audience will then speak out against exploiting primates – and animals in general – in entertainment.