Once only pets for the wealthy, chimps achieved an exalted place in American popular culture 80 years ago, and the latest chapter of that love affair comes with the release of “Chimpanzee."
A Disney documentary narrated by Tim Allen (yes, he invokes his “Tool Time” gorilla hoot), "Chimpanzee" tells the story of Oscar, a newborn chimp who is orphaned when his mother dies in a turf war with another gang of chimps from a nearby forest.
Oscar is cute as a button, the cinematography is stunning, and there’s some time-lapse footage of plants and water that is mesmerizing. For adults, Allen’s patter, dumbed down for kids and full of corny jokes, is grating. But for the film’s target audience, little kids, it’s probably magical.
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Chimps and humans parted ways genetically some 6 million years ago. But a great love between we humans and our simian cousins blossomed anew roughly 400 years ago, when the Western world rediscovered chimps
"The age of exploration had begun to bring to the West all these exotic animals, first just pickled and then live ones. People wanted to have their own menagerie," explains Todd Disotell, an evolutionary biologist at New York University.
The first chimp to strike a chord with a wide audience was Cheeta, Tarzan’s right-hand chimp in the Hollywood adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs series of novels. Tarzan and Cheeta communicated seamlessly, were best of friends and together kept safe their fellow jungle dwellers and Jane, the pretty young explorer who caught Tarzan’s eye.
The most improbably famous chimp, hands down, has to be J. Fred Muggs, who for two years served alongside Dave Garroway as host of the “Today” show on NBC in the 1950s. Sporting a suit and drinking from his own mug, he added a civilized air to the show.
While not strictly entertainment, but entertaining, the American government gave us a chimp as national hero in the late '50s, when America found itself falling behind the Russians in the space race. Sputnik had been bad enough for our nation's psyche, but when the Reds sent a living breathing dog, Laika, into space, President Eisenhower had no choice but to respond. And so, a young chimp was plucked from the jungles of Cameroon, sold to NASA, named Ham and sent into space.
While Laika proved that life could survive space flight, Ham upped the ante by proving that a living thing could actually function in space. It was Ham’s ability to performed simple tasks in response to a flashing light that convinced NASA that a human could maintain enough cognitive and manual ability to man a rocket ship.
Coming soon after was the the must successful chimp-related franchise in American history was launched in 1968, with the release of "Planet of the Apes," starring Charlton Heston as an astronaut from Earth whose spaceship crashes on a planet run by talking apes.
By the 1970s, things got even weirder.
"My own personal favorite when I was a kid was "Lancelot Links, Secret Chimp"… He was like a James Bond, it was taking off from "Man from U.N.C.L.E., "Get Smart," all that –but it was a chimp version," said Disotell.
The action on "Lancelot Links" pitted APE (the Agency to Prevent Evil) against CHUMP (Criminal Headquarters for the Underworld's Master Plan), and the show was littered with ape puns referencing Darwin's Theory, and other such nonsense.
"It was a hilarious series, as a kid I loved it—now I would probably be truly appalled by what they must have had to do to these chimps to get them to act and do all the things they did," Distoll said.
And who could forget Bubbles? Somewhere between the time he began a decades-long love affair with rhinoplasty and sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, Michael Jackson spent far too long hitting the red carpet with a diapered chimp named Bubbles resting on his hip.
In 2009, people who may have been entertained by chimps learnd that they do not necessarily make good pets. On Feb. 16 of that year, a chimp named Travis who was living in Connecticut with his owner, Sandra Herold, attack Herold's friend Charla Nash, 55. Travis' assault was so savage that Nash lost her nose, eyes and jaw.
"They are horrible pets," confirms Disotell. While lovable when they are young, "as soon they hit 6 or 7 years old, and they start getting larger, they become immensely strong. There are all sort of horrible stories like that. A guy in California had his (testicles) and hands bitten off. It’s very, very common for adult pet chimps to turn on their keepers."
More recently we've enjoyed a surge in chimp-tainment, as just last year saw the release of two of the great chimp-related films, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "Project Nim." Caesar was the simian at the center of the action in "Rise," brilliantly played by Andy Serkis with help from some gifted special effects wizards, and unlike the original "Apes" film, didn’t suffer from a glaring lack of self-awareness, telling an all-too-possible cautionary tale about the dangers of unethical science.
"Nim," like all great docs about animals, is actually about people, telling the tragic tale of a chimp whom folks from Columbia University tried to raise as a human baby, hoping to teach it sign language and table manners. The story ends poorly, with no one suffering more than the chimp.
Luckily, things are looking up for chimps, as Disotell explains that there's a growing movement among animal rights activist and the primatological community to ban the use of chimps in both entertainment and experiments.
"I probably would support that," say Disotell. "As far as research goes, sometime within the next year or two, the NIH (National Institute of Health) is probably going to stop funding any research using live chimps. Everybody's expecting this to come down the pike. We just don’t know if it’s a year from now or three years from now."
As a result, Disotell, say that many pharmacological firms have already stopped using them, not wanting a five-year experiment to suddenly lose funding because of a change in rules. And Disotell adds that for both science and Hollywood, after getting a few years of service out of a chimp, you're looking at potentially more than a million dollars in retirement expenses, as chimp can live 30 to 50 years and cost more than $30,000 a year to care for.