Suffering Behind the Silver Screen

Posted on September 1, 2006

Cody, one of the chimpanzees ALDF is fighting to rescue from abusive "trainer" Sid YostChimpanzees are our closest relatives, sharing 98.4% of their DNA with us. But unlike their human counterparts, chimpanzees on the silver screen don’t enjoy a VIP lifestyle in the spotlight.

While collecting information about Hollywood chimpanzee “trainer” Sid Yost’s practices for more than a year, primatologist Sarah Baeckler was shocked by the violent manner in which Yost and some of his colleagues treated the animals who were hired out as performers. The chimpanzees that Yost has mistreated have appeared in numerous movies, commercials, and TV spots, including “That ’70s Show,”
“Scrubs,” and “The Craig Kilborn Show” — but the cruelty they endure behind the scenes is anything but funny.

“The trainers physically abuse the chimpanzees for various reasons, but often for no reason at all,” explains Baeckler. “If the chimpanzees try
to run away from a trainer, they are beaten. If they bite someone, they are beaten. If they don’t pay attention, they are beaten. Sometimes
they are beaten without any provocation or for things that are completely out of their control.” Baeckler, who holds undergraduate degrees in primate behavior and anthropology and a master’s degree in primatology, also described how on at least one occasion, Yost beat a chimpanzee named Apollo with a thick, cane-shaped stick; the beating was so vicious that Yost eventually broke the stick over Apollo’s back. Adds Baeckler, “I saw volunteers and trainers hit a chimpanzee named Cody on the head with a lock, take a full windup and punch him in the back, kick him in the head, and hit him with a blunt instrument known as ‘the ugly stick.'”

After Baeckler notified the Animal Legal Defense Fund of the extreme cruelty she witnessed while working volunteering with Yost from June 2002 to July 2003, an ALDF attorney got to work, spending countless hours putting together a complaint against him. In November 2005, ALDF v. Yost was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, alleging that Yost is violating the Endangered Species Act and the California anti-cruelty statute by subjecting the chimpanzees in his possession to extreme pain and suffering.

It’s not the first time the trainer has found himself on the wrong side of the law. Yost, who also goes by the stage name “Ranger Rick,” has repeatedly been cited, fined, and placed on probation for animal-related offenses. The USDA has cited Yost for endangering the public because of the way he has handled chimpanzees: in two separate incidents in 2000 and 2001, a chimpanzee Yost was handling attacked a child during a public appearance. Yost has also been cited for his failure to provide minimum space to chimpanzees stored in a transportation vehicle, illegal possession of a lion cub, failure to provide ventilation in a shipping container for a chimpanzee, and failure to have an environmental enhancement plan. He has claimed his animals “live like at the Ritz-Carlton” and that his treatment of the chimpanzees is based on “affection training,” a method that he claims emphasizes love, patience, and consistency.

But Baeckler said the chimpanzees at the animal-training compound in Malibu, California, lived in small cages and that she observed them routinely being beaten to break their spirits and make them submissive, so that they became fearful and withdrawn when a trainer approached. Over a period of several months, she said, a three-year-old chimpanzee named Sable was punched in the back, kicked in the head, and had objects–including a rock, a mallet, and a broom handle–thrown at her. And while she never abused the chimpanzees herself, Baeckler says was instructed to do so by the various trainers she worked with. Yost told her to hit the chimpanzees “hard enough that they know you mean business, but not so hard that you do permanent damage.” One trainer told her, “Aim for her head because it’s really sturdy.” And Yost said, “Kick her in the face as hard as you can. You can’t hurt her.” She saw
Yost using all of his strength to kick and punch the young chimpanzees in his care, all in order to force them to perform for movies, television and live appearances.

As the preeminent primatologist Jane Goodall points out, chimpanzees are aware of themselves and of others as unique individuals. When faced with physical abuse, chimpanzees respond just as a human would under similar circumstances: they cry and scream and utter sounds with distinct meanings. They suffer; and they look for a way to escape the torture.

In ALDF’s lawsuit seeking to rescue Apollo, Cody, Sable, and a fourth chimpanzee named Angel from the frequent abuse meted out by Yost, ALDF is claiming that by physically injuring chimpanzees, who are covered by the Endangered Species Act, Yost is in direct violation of the Act. The lawsuit also says that Yost is in violation of the California anti-cruelty statute and of the federal Animal Welfare Act, which states that “[h]andling of all animals shall be done…in a manner that does not cause trauma,…behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort.” Furthermore, two of the chimpanzees currently in Yost’s possession at a facility in San Bernardino were stolen from his former employer, Amazing Animal Actors, a co-plaintiff in the suit. Amazing Animal Actors intends to retire the chimpanzees when they are rightfully returned.

“Eyewitness testimony will prove that Yost uses vicious beatings and intimidation to force terrified chimpanzees to perform in the spotlight,” said ALDF’s Chief Outside Litigation Counsel Bruce Wagman. “It is unconscionable — and illegal — for him to abuse our closest relatives for our viewing pleasure and his profit. ALDF will see to it that these animals will no longer suffer the pain and fear of being subjected to his cruel ‘training’ techniques.”

The nascent use of computer-generated and animatronic animals in films and television shows may one day render training and the use of live animals obsolete, since these technologies allow filmmakers to create exactly the performance they are looking for. Director Peter Jackson, for example, used only computer-generated animals for last year’s epic King Kong.
But as long as animals are exploited in the name of “entertainment,” ALDF will work to ensure that the rights of all animals used in entertainment are respected.

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