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February 08, 2011

Mistreatment of Chimpanzees Is No Joke

I was in the Dallas area two Sundays ago — one week before the Super Bowl game at Cowboys Stadium. I was there to take a look at the construction of our new Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center, an important add-on to the larger animal-care enterprise we operate at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, in Murchison, Texas. As I do whenever I go to Black Beauty, I criss-crossed the ranch pastures to see many of the 1,000 or so animals who live on them. Among the first creatures I see on my visits are three chimpanzees — Kitty, Lulu and Midge, since their home is near the entrance at Black Beauty. They’ve got an expansive outdoor habitat, they receive a healthy diet, and they can enjoy each other’s company. But it’s a world apart from their native habitats in Tanzania or Uganda, and they are far away from their family members and the freedom that life in the wild would bring.

Kitty the chimpanzee 
The HSUS
Kitty, one of the chimpanzees at our Black Beauty sanctuary.

They are there because of our human failings. People once used them in circuses and laboratory research, but then discarded them when they’d had enough of them. It’s never a good outcome to be discarded, and there’s usually some sort of trauma associated with it. But beyond that, I also think about it from our organizational perspective, and especially the resources needed to care for them. HSUS and The Fund for Animals — really, our donors — are financing the housing and feeding of these animals for decades, at a cost that will ultimately run into seven figures.

On the weekend following my visit, the Super Bowl was played just about an hour’s drive from Black Beauty. I watched it from the comfort of my home, hoping that in the torrent of ads, I would not see any more of those silly chimpanzee commercials — not because I don’t think the animals are appealing, but because I know what happens to them when they grow up. The animal-training companies that rent out animals for these gambits typically get rid of them when they reach early adolescence and they are too strong to be used on movie sets or in advertisements. They are cast aside at 7 or 8 years old, or even younger, even though they have a life expectancy of up to 60 years.

I was pleased to see many fewer chimpanzees in ads, especially compared to a few years ago when it seemed they were everywhere. This time, CareerBuilder stood alone in its callousness, continuing the theme it’s developed in recent years. For their cheap, tawdry and not very funny 30-second advertisement, they keep the animal-training companies in business, and the consequences are clear: chimpanzees will be abandoned, and operations like Black Beauty Ranch will have to clean up the mess they’ve made. The handful of heroic great ape sanctuaries operating in small rural outposts throughout the nation will spend millions in the decades ahead dealing with the lack of forethought exhibited by CareerBuilder and similar companies that just don’t get it. They are happy to profit, while the animals will pay with their lives, so many of them being forced to live in roadside zoos, research labs, or as pets in someone’s backyard or basement. In the end, only a small percentage of them go to sanctuaries. 

In yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, Patti Ragan of the Center for Great Apes put the lie to any fanciful claims about the educational value of such commercials, or the notion that CareerBuilder had merely brought its chimps “out of retirement.” What the company did was to line up a new generation of young chimpanzees, taken from their mothers at an early age and channeled into the pipeline of caged confinement. Ragan also points out that such portrayals of chimpanzees have a negative conservation impact — who would think that these animals are endangered in the wild when they are used so frivolously?

It’s shocking corporate indifference at work, blithely pressing chimpanzees into service for a commercial, in a day when millions of people understand that this kind of use is plainly wrong. It’s the wrong kind of brand awareness, and dozens of companies have pulled such advertisements or declined to use great apes in such demeaning and harmful fashion. To use chimpanzees as clowns is the oldest and the crudest of vaudevillian gimmicks, and CareerBuilder deserves the criticism being sent its way in the social media.

At HSUS, we’re active on a full range of fronts to help chimpanzees, whether it’s pushing to get chimpanzees out of laboratories, teaching people about chimps and their endangerment, supporting the work of sanctuaries and the protection of chimpanzees in the wild, investigating the mistreatment of chimps and other primates in captivity, pushing for passage of the Captive Primate Safety Act and the Great Ape Protection Act, or calling upon the federal government in our Change Agenda to list all chimpanzees as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (currently, wild chimpanzee populations are listed as endangered while captive chimpanzee populations are listed as threatened).

It’s time for all of the ad agencies to stop using chimps in entertainment, and it’s time for companies to make a similar pledge. It couldn’t be an easier commitment, and there’s no sacrifice involved. Just let the human mind do something more creative and entertaining than have a few baby chimpanzees walk around in human clothing. And do something not just for the animals, but for the self-sacrificing animal advocates who have plenty of other things to occupy their moral attention and their energies than caring for abandoned chimpanzees.

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