Suffering Behind the Silver ScreenPosted on September 1, 2006
Chimpanzees 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
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
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
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.