Dr. Robert Shumaker, of the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, is in Toronto to discuss ending the use of the great apes in the entertainment industry. He makes his case to the Star's San Grewal
Apr 15, 2009 04:30 AM The star.com
With the recent retirement of eight hairy Hollywood stars Dr. Robert Shumaker can rest easy.
The eight orangutans came from a California-based trainer who, for the past three decades, provided the animals for feature films, TV shows, commercials and magazine shoots.
But the great apes are also an endangered species, with about 55,000 remaining in the wild, compared to 225,000 at the start of the 20th century on the island of Borneo alone.
Shumaker is a scientist and director of the orangutan research program at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, where the retired orangutans will eventually call home. He talked to the Star yesterday before his Toronto presentation tonight of The Show Must Not Go On: Ending Orangutans in Entertainment.
Q: Most of us have seen the now-retired orangutans in movies, shows or commercials. What misperceptions did their presence in Hollywood create?
A: People want to focus on the question, `Was an ape physically abused?' That's not really the question.... All of these orangutans are in very good health ... The bigger questions are about conservation and public perception. The reality is we could easily see the end of orangutans in my lifetime.
Q: Is physical treatment not an issue?
A: Within any industry there's a range of behaviour. In the treatment of apes it varies from trainer to trainer. I want to be careful not to paint everyone who works with apes in entertainment with the same brush. Having said that, I don't agree with apes in entertainment. ...It's not just their physical welfare we're concerned about. There are questions of infants being taken from their mother. Mother apes have an incredibly strong bond with their infants.
Q: When did you become so passionate about great apes?
A: I honestly do not remember a time when I was not completely passionate about apes. From earliest childhood, it's all I wanted to do. I have a vivid memory at 3 or 4 being at the National Zoo in Washington where I grew up. I remember it very clearly, seeing the gorillas and orangutans. It was not their size or their power, it was their faces. Even as a child I knew I was looking at an intelligent individual looking back at me.
Q: And while growing up did you like King Kong?
A: I'm no different than anyone else, I used to love seeing apes in entertainment as a kid, like most kids. My exposure to some of the controversy of apes in entertainment was when I started to work with the zoo community. I have two children, 7 and 3. I hope as adults they'll be able to say there's still orangutans living in the wild.
Q: What does the retirement of the eight orangutans mean for that wish?
A: As far as changing the perceptions and using them for our amusement, I know of no more trainers that are active with orangutans in the entertainment industry. That chapter is now closing.