The Movie-Star Chimpanzee's Retirement Plan Once performing chimpanzees grow too strong and willful to continue their acting careers and returning to the wild is no longer an option, where do they go? Journalist Charles Siebert discusses his new book, which answers the question for one such chimp.
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The Movie-Star Chimpanzee's Retirement Plan

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The Movie-Star Chimpanzee's Retirement Plan

The Movie-Star Chimpanzee's Retirement Plan

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our FRESH AIR Animal Week continues with Terry's interview with journalist Charles Siebert, who wrote a book about where chimpanzee performers go when they're through acting in circuses, movies, TV shows and commercials. A lot of them, it turns out, go to a kind of retirement home called the Center for Great Apes on the outskirts of Wauchula in South Central, Florida. Siebert's book is called the "The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals." Terry spoke with him in July.


Let's start with just a roll call of famous chimps living in retirement now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHARLES SIEBERT (Journalist; Author, "The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals"): Well, I guess we'd have to start with Bubbles, Michael Jackson's chimp, who lived in the very retirement home for chimp entertainers where I lived for a time. There's Cheetah, of course, of the Tarzan movies. He's out on a West Coast retirement home in Palm Springs, of course.

There are all the chimps - do you know the commercials that were so popular during the Super Bowl, where one of the chimps -the chimps run amok in an office. They're all dressed in suits, and one of them pulls down his pants and sits on the office copy machine. All those chimps were at the Center for Great Apes, where Roger and Bubbles are. There's the orangutan from a movie called "Dunston Checks In," something with Jason Alexander, which I've never seen. Roger, my - star of my book, he was a cellist in an all-chimp orchestra...

GROSS: Oh gosh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Ringling Brothers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: So it goes on and on. And when you visit this place, it's just so, it's so ridiculous because you walk in and, you know, Patty Reagan, who owns it, will just introduce you to each of them and it's, you know, you're just looking at these stars with their dossiers. And, of course, the sadness involved is that, as people don't realize, they have viability as actors for about five or six years, and then they get too big and strong and end up living 50 more years in captivity. So...

GROSS: Well, let me - we'll get back to that in a second. But let me Just ask you: Does Roger, the former circus cellist, still played cello? Do the circus stars still do the things that they were trained to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: It's funny you should say. Just the moment prior to meeting Roger and locking eyes with him for the first time, Patty was introducing me to these chimps in an enclosure opposite Roger's. And one of the chimps there is named Butch. And Butch came walking out of his back quarters towards the front of the enclosure in an eerily upright sort of position. And he came right up to the front, and Patty went, and that's Butch. And I went, hi, Butch. And Patty put her hand over mouth like, oh, no, you shouldn't have done that. And Butch immediately went into...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...a classic stand-up ta-dah pose with his hands straight in the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: And this was his old shtick, which was prompted whenever anyone said hello to him.

GROSS: Now, as I said, you know, chimpanzees can only work till a certain age - what, about five or six - and then what happens?

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, as we sometimes see in horrible circumstances with pet chimps, they get big and strong. An adult chimp is about five times stronger than the strongest human and very rambunctious in their teenage years especially, just like human beings. So they become willful and very aggressive. And they are, after all, wild animals, all of our, you know, distortions of them notwithstanding.

And because a lot of them have gone through traumas of captivity - being separated too early from their mothers, not growing up with other chimps - they have pathologies. They have neuroses. They have trauma. And sometimes the littlest thing, as with humans, can upset the scar tissue - the trauma in their brain - and set them off, as we saw with this incident in Stamford, Connecticut, not too long ago, where Travis mauled that woman so horribly.

GROSS: You know, when Michael Jackson gave away his chimp, Bubbles, gave him to a sanctuary, he said that Bubbles had become too aggressive. But apparently that's the typical problem after a certain age for people or circuses or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...TV trainers with chimps.

Mr. SIEBERT: Absolutely. I mean, when that Travis incident happened, I wrote a piece, an op-ed piece for The Times about it. I mean, it was literally a chapter out of my book, because they're about - any number of similar stories. People just, you know, we have this cartoonish notion of chimps. We know them in their baby-stage, when they - we dress them up in cute little suits and they pedal around on bicycles. And yet time and again, once they get too old, we hear these stories of - Quincy Jones, as I read the other day, was remembering Bubbles and how Bubbles bit his own kid's hand when he visited Michael. I mean, these chimps can be very willful and aggressive.

GROSS: Some of these chimps are research chimps, too. I mean, isn't there one facility you visited where there's all the NASA chimps - all the chimps who were the chimps in the space research - are retired?

Mr. SIEBERT: Most of them were research lab chimps for medical purposes like finding cures for malaria or hepatitis, or, they thought, HIV. So we, the country bred an unbelievable number of chimps when AIDS first broke out, thinking that they would be an obvious model for finding a vaccine. And it proved to be not true because it looks like AIDS morphed originally from a chimp - a simian virus. So that did, so we had all these surplus chimps.

But yes, also, chimps who were used in the space program way back and went through all those flight tests. And they ended up at this facility in Shreveport - outside of Shreveport, Louisiana - and this was the result of the Bill Clinton's last act in his presidency called the CHIMP Act, where the government, rather than, you know, had all these surplus chimps. And they thought geez, for, you know, for all the effort they've - and sacrifice they've made for us, we can't just put down all these chimps. So we built a retirement home for them. And I must tell you, when I visited it, I was thinking...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...I don't think I'm going to do as well in retirement out here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: We're talking very nice rooms with skylights and television sets and...

GROSS: No, television sets?

Mr. SIEBERT: Television sets. Chimps love TV. They love very dramatic, violent shows. It should be no surprise. Nature shows...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: They - this one really got to me. One of their - they love soap operas, and their favorite is - the research lab chimps' favorite is "General Hospital"…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...because they're so used to people in white coats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: So it's just remarkable, their level of sentience and awareness.

GROSS: When you talk about chimps in retirement homes, I'm also picturing like chimps on walkers. But I guess not. No?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Well, it's getting pretty close. I mean, you know, the, this is what I, why I was so envious. Right down the hall, they had their house dentist. They had a doctor. You know, I mean, they had their little patios outside that then gives on to a fenced-in patch of forest where they swing. I mean, you know, it's the best we can do to extend the paradox of trying to dignify an animal in captivity. But it is pretty well done. I mean, they're still in captivity, but it's the best life we can afford them after all they've been through.

GROSS: Well, particularly, I - gosh, I mean, like, the research chimps, like we've used them for our own good. We've put them in harm's way for our own good. So we owe them a good, a good retirement, which is going to be a lot longer than the life they spent doing the research.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Exactly. And a lot longer than the chimp would live in the wild, because, you know, in the wild, there are so many more threats to a chimp. Whereas in captivity, you know, they're protected. So they live. Some of them live up to 60, 70 years old.

GROSS: Well, you ask a really, kind of profound question in the book, which is what does it mean, now that we have this whole population of chimps who were raised in captivity, who lived around humans more than around other chimpanzees, they were taught to perform for humans or to do research for humans. And you can't return them to the wild because they never lived in the wild in the first place. They wouldn't know what to do there. It's kind of like me when I go camping, but worse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so you can't return them to the wild. And so who are they? Are they humans, are they chimpanzees? Or as you put it, are they humanzees? Like, what are they now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah. Yeah, they're stranded. They're being stranded between their former selves and what we've tried to coax them into being, or what we've been suggesting to them. And a lot of them stay stranded. They can't go back. I mean, Roger so captivated me among the chimps at that retirement home in Wauchula because, at least when I met him, things have changed, but he was the only chimp there who lived alone because whereas others began to learn to socialize with other chimps - by the way, zoos refuse to take these actor chimps because they're so asocial and clumsy and don't get along with other chimps at the beginning.

GROSS: They get along with people, but not with other chimps?

Mr. SIEBERT: Exactly. But Patty's been very successful in sort of re-socializing a lot of these chimps. So they make friends and at least have the company. But Roger was so adamant about his, sort of his loneliness. He wanted to be with people. And it seemed to me that he wanted to be with me when I first got there. He had, there was this very strong reaction that he had, as almost as though he recognized me from some prior encounter. But no, you're right. These beings can't be wild chimps again. But so they're just caught. They're forever stranded between what they were and what we suggest to them. So I call them humanzees or chewmans or manpanzees, all these words for these hybrids that we've made.

BIANCULLI: Journalist Charles Siebert speaking with Terry Gross in July. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview from July with journalist Charles Siebert. His recently published book about the retirement home for chimps is called "The Wauchula Woods Accord."

GROSS: How do you think your encounters with whales and chimpanzees and other animals that you've written about over the years have affected your sense of what it means to be human?

Mr. SIEBERT: I think it underscores my, I guess, my humanness. And it seems like a contradiction, but I love being reminded of my animality and don't feel, as I think a lot of humans do, debased by that. But I feel deeply liberated by and ennobled by the reminders of my connectivity with all other biology and biological life forms. And, you know - and I'm going past even the ones that shock us with their incredible humanness, like the chimps or the elephants.

I mean, I was so moved by that experience because, I mean, elephants, like whales, and we now know chimps, I mean, they have culture. We can now use that word. They have self-reflection. They have tool use. They wound. They have trauma. To know that there are, you know, it used to be, science told us we couldn't anthropomorphize. Now, of all things, science allows, or at least obviates the scene of anthropomorphism because the question isn't anymore, you know, oh, we can't know what a whale day is or a chimp day or a dolphin.

You know, now we know through science that they have days, parallel days that are equally as intricate and woundable as our own days. And, I don't know. There comes - it's wonderful to know that one. It's the sense of, you know how we often ask that question: Are we alone? And we ask that about extraterrestrials. Well, you know, when you meet a whale or an elephant eye to eye like that, you feel like you're making contact with another being, a foreign being, but another being. And you don't feel alone anymore. So the very encounter we seek, mythically and through fiction, you know, is available to us through these other very sophisticated animals.

GROSS: Do you have pets?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: ...two dogs. And I have had dogs all along. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And, and...

Mr. SIEBERT: Spent a lot of my days talking nonsensically to my dogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, do you feel a different sense of connection with your dogs than you do say with chimpanzees or with whales? Do the chimpanzees and whales seem more different from you, more far away than your dogs do or...

Mr. SIEBERT: Hmm. I guess the encounter with the chimps and the elephants and the whales are more fraught because of the clear complexity going on behind those eyes. Whereas...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIEBERT: can be, as I was just alluding to you, you can be sort of shameless with your dogs in terms of what you'll say and do and project upon them, not that they're blank by any means. But clearly, one knows that there's not as much going on the sort of, neuronal level that there is with some of these other creatures. I mean these brain studies that have been done now - that's what I meant about science liberating us to make conjectures about these creatures. I mean, when you look at a whale brain, as a scientist up at Mount Sinai School of Medicine has done in a chimpanzee brain and a dolphin, they're finding the exact same structures in the neocortex that we evolved in our own brain and the very neurons that we used to say, the cells that make us human. Well now we found for example, whales not only have more of those cells than we do, they developed them millions of years before we did in a whole different environment. So stuff like that just, I don't know, just makes my head spin. It's just amazing.

GROSS: In the acknowledgments to your book about chimpanzees, you thank a few doctors for saving your heart, when sudden illness struck. May I ask what happened?

Mr. SIEBERT: Yeah, about a year and half ago, in the midst of trying to get this book finished, I was walking to a restaurant one night with my wife and I found myself short of breath. And for no particular reason, I couldn't explain it. And I was sitting up at night sort of, you know, wheezing and I just didn't know what was going on. And I went to a doctor and thought that it might be pneumonia and it turned out that a virus had attacked my heart and reduced its function to a critically low level. So I was just really knocked for a loop there and I also had no health insurance. Um...


Mr. SIEBERT: the whole picture was not a pretty one. I was saved by, literally by a guardian angel that I mentioned, guardian angels, that I mentioned in my acknowledgment. Neil Epstein a heart, cardiologist, who I wrote about in my previous book "A Man After His Own Heart." I've long been obsessed with the heart because my father had an incurable kind of heart failure. Thus, the deep irony of someone who's been, you know, as obsessed with the heart and sometimes paranoid about the heart as myself to be felled by this virus.

And I was given thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of care because I was put in part of a research protocol at the NIH. And it literally saved my life and my heart's rebounded since. And I'm on medication to help that process along. But it was that kind of nip and tuck there for a while. So…

GROSS: You know how in some hospitals they have therapy animals that they bring for the patients, so patients can pet them and it's supposed to kind of relieve stress and just be the generally all around pleasant experience to spend a few minutes with an animal. Did you have animals, in addition to your dogs to help you during your time of recovery, or were you supposed to stay away from animals because of possible infection?

Mr. SIEBERT: Huh, interesting. You know, I - that's one of the things I want to find out about in this - in my pursuit of knowing that what happened with this virus. Was I infectious to other people? But to answer your question, in the immediate, no, I didn't have - when I was at the NIH, I had no contact with animals. But, you know, funny you should say, to help me get past this, I also became suddenly diabetic out of nowhere, which is, there's no history for it in my family. So, this, whatever this virus was, it knocked me - everything in my system for a loop.

And I was having to inject myself with insulin, having to take these pills. And at one point, I looked at my wife and, you know, I needed to finish this book. And I said, you know what, I just can't be here. I just can't be around you and be injecting myself. I almost - I needed to be alone, so I took my two dogs - and this same heart doctor, who saved my life, offered me his cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And I went and lived there in this remote cabin by myself with the two dogs.

And it just helped me to overcome the whole setback physically, and helped me to focus on the book and get it all done. But I have to say, those two dogs saved, you know, also saved my life because, you know, I had that companionship, which is, you know, invaluable.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SIEBERT: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BIANCULLI: Journalist Charles Siebert speaking to Terry Gross in July. His book about a retired home for chimps is called "The Wauchula Woods Accord." Coming up, Robert Smigel the creator and alter ego Triumph: The Insult Comic Dog on what makes dogs, especially talking dogs, so funny. This is FRESH AIR.

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