Retired show biz chimps come to Maryland Zoo

Jack and Louie get to know new digs, existing troop

August 16, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

David Braver of Pikesville was visiting the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, spending a pleasant day with his wife and grandkids, 6 and 4. The family walked up to the glass wall of the Chimp Forest to peer inside.

Suddenly, one of the chimpanzees raced straight for them, all 5 feet and 145 pounds of him. He crashed into the sturdy glass just inches away. Whomp!

The humans at the glass jumped back, shrieking, freaked out by this unexpected display of primate speed and muscle. The chimp ambled off, having ably demonstrated his adolescent male bravado.

That scenario happened over and over again Wednesday as Jack and Louie, the newest additions to the zoo's chimpanzee troop, explored the ropes, faux trees and the glass spectators' wall of their spacious new digs in Baltimore.

"They're just showing off, saying, 'I'm big and strong,'" zoo curator Mike McClure explained to a startled Braver, who was visiting with his wife Rhona, and grandkids Alexandra and Ben, of Philadelphia.

The children seemed … well, impressed. Little Alexandra pointed to the rope hammock inside the chimps' day room, and said, "I would like to play with that, but not the monkeys." Ben was speechless.

The chimpanzees — Jack, 14, and Louie, 11 — arrived in Baltimore June 11, part of an effort by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to relocate 14 chimps owned by Greg and Carol Lille. The Lilles are the owners of a 33-year-old Sacramento, Calif., chimp rescue facility that also produced educational shows for zoos. They supported their work by hiring out chimps for work in TV, movies and advertising.

Preparing now to retire, the Lilles asked the AZA to help them find safe, permanent homes for all their chimps. Two males have now been donated to the Oakland Zoo, in California, and 10 more — five males and five females — went to establish a new troop at the Houston Zoo in Texas.

The Maryland Zoo has acquired its chimps over the years through exchanges with other zoos, according to zoo spokeswoman Jane Ballentine. The swaps are typically done to augment the troop, or to replace animals that have died, and keep the troop's genetic mix healthy. Two chimps have been born here in the past five years.

Some TV, movie exposure

Jack and Louie were born in the Lilles' facility and spent a short time doing TV commercials and movies, McClure said. They know each other well, and are comfortable together.

"Louie's a little older, but they're both fairly large, really nice physiques," McClure said. "Jack's a really stout male, a good-looking boy." He's also a bit high-strung, and easy to distinguish because he's more active.

Chimps might be cute and funny when they're small, but McClure said the adults are not to be trifled with.

Although people share 96 percent of their DNA, "a chimp is five times as strong as we are, proportionally," he said. It becomes clear when they undergo medical procedures and need to be handled by people. "They're like concrete, so incredibly solid and dense. It's very sobering to me to see how powerful they really are."

Their strength is part of what makes them difficult, sometimes dangerous pets, said Steve Ross, of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, chairman of the AZA's Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan.

"Once they reach 8 years old, they really have no great value as actors anymore," Ross said. Many private owners end up turning them over to primate refuges when they can no longer manage them.

Ross orchestrated the relocation of the Lille chimps, the largest ever done by his group. He said the use of chimps in the entertainment industry "is not a viable business anymore."

There is also pressure on firms like the Lilles' to stop the use of chimpanzees in entertainment, Ross said. While the animals are not harmed on the set, training methods can be "aversive," and some animals return to housing that is "substandard."

"I don't think Greg and Carol Lille were part of that, but that's a known in the business," Ross said. "We were happy to help cut the entertainment industry for chimps in half."

The Lilles "really cared for those chimps and wanted to do the best thing for them," Ross said. The couple declined to be interviewed for this article.

There is another downside to the use of chimps for entertainment or advertising, Ross said. A recent study showed that when chimps are portrayed in tutus, or in other inappropriate ways, "it made people think the chimpanzee is not endangered. And of course chimpanzees are a very threatened species in the wild."

McClure visited the Lilles' facility before Jack and Louie were moved. "I was extremely impressed with how they handled them," he said. He was also relieved to see that Jack and Louie, despite their lifetimes in captivity, were "very chimp-like" in their behavior. They would fit in well, he hoped, with the Baltimore troop.

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