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  • Writer's pictureJeannette De Wyze

Exploiting Apes for Entertainment

A Brief History

The extinction of bonobos and other great apes is an all too real – if horrifying – possibility. But our primate cousins have already vanished from one realm and, in this case, it’s a cause for celebration; apes are no longer being exploited by the entertainment industry.


As recently as 2012, chimpanzees (primarily) and other great apes (occasionally) were still being pressed into service as performers in movies, television shows, and commercials. The chimpanzees’ intelligence and resemblance to humans made them irresistible to audiences, and as early as 1918 at least one chimpanzee had appeared in a silent movie: the first Tarzan offering, Tarzan of the Apes.

Chimpanzee "Jiggs" in Tarzan of the Apes film with Gordon Griffith
"Jiggs" in Tarzan of the Apes film with Gordon Griffith

The film site IMDb lists close to 50 spin-offs that followed Tarzan of the Apes, many of which featured live chimpanzees. Perhaps most famous of these primate “actors” was Jiggs, who played the role of Tarzan’s companion (called “Cheeta” and later “Nkima”) in a half dozen of the series installments. Jiggs also worked alongside Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and Dorothy Lamour, but when he attacked Lamour on the set of Her Jungle Love (1938), he was retired. Almost immediately, he died of pneumonia. He was just nine years old.


Chimpanzee "Jiggs" in Tarzan of the Apes film with Elmo Lincoln and Enid Markey
"Jiggs" in "Tarzan of the Apes" film with Elmo Lincoln and Enid Markey

A chimpanzee named Peggy rocketed to fame in the 1951 family comedy Bedtime for Bonzo, with Ronald Reagan and Diana Lynn as academics who were raising the animal as part of anature-versus-nurture experiment. Universal planned a long career for Peggy, but just two weeks after Bonzo’s premiere, she and three other chimpanzees suffocated in a fire at the Thousand Oaks Zoo. The studio didn’t miss a beat, though, using another animal (dubbed Bonzo II) for the sequel, Bonzo Goes to College


Marquis Chimpanzee Performance in Las Vegas, 1950s

From the 1950s through the rest of the 20th Century, chimpanzee actors were ubiquitous. In 1950, an English circus performer brought a troupe of trained chimpanzees to America, and for more than 30 years he booked their appearances in Las Vegas nightclubs and on television programs including The Ed Sullivan Show, The NBC Comedy Hour, The Jack Benny Show, and more. The “Marquis Chimps” also starred in countless commercials.


Although the entertainment industry never routinely exploited live gorillas as entertainers, orangutans helped pull in a staggering amount of money for Warner Brothers when they were paired with Clint Eastwood in the action comedies Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and Any Which Way You Can (1980).


Animal Rights Activists Push for Change


By the 1980s, however, concerns about the ethics and impact of using great apes as entertainers were beginning to build. Media personality Bob Barker and other animal rights advocates began focusing attention on the inhumane treatment endured by great apes and other conscripted animal actors, and the nonprofit organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) mounted an intensive, decades-long lobbying campaign to stop the exploitation of great apes as performers.

Human in ape costume standing on busy street holding a sign "Thanks for not Using Real Apes! PETA"
Outside the premiere of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes' in Hollywood, PETA thanks filmmakers for using no real apes in the movie, 2011.

Other voices pointed out that more was at stake than just the welfare of individual animals. Demand for apes from the entertainment industry was fueling not just trafficking and population decline but also promoting harmful public attitudes. A 2005 survey conducted by a group of distinguished primatologists and published in Science found that survey respondents thought chimpanzees were less endangered than gorillas or orangutans. Their most common reason for thinking this was that chimpanzees were commonly seen on television, in advertisements and movies, so they must not be in jeopardy. In fact, all great ape species are either endangered or critically endangered, meaning they are likely to become extinct in the near future. 

Raising Awareness: Apes are #NotPets

A subsequent study published in 2011 in the journal PLoS ONE expanded on this. It found that subjects who viewed a photo of a chimpanzee with a human standing nearby were 35.5% more likely to consider wild populations to be stable and healthy, compared to those who saw the exact same photo without a human. 


A human presence in the photo also increased the likelihood the respondent thought chimpanzees would make good pets. This is why, when Friends of Bonobos shares images of caregivers at Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary tending to bonobo orphans, we explain the bonobos are #NotPets but traumatized victims of trafficking who need care and emotional support to survive. 


PETA pushed the Dodge automotive brand to remove chimpanzees from their ads, and in 2015 celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay agreed to PETA’s demand that he stop using a chimpanzee on his popular Master Chef Junior program. By 2020, PETA was declaring, “There are officially no more chimpanzees in Hollywood.” The owner of Working Wildlife (the only remaining supplier of animal performers) had stopped hiring out his last two chimpanzees; they eventually retired to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.


Computer-Generated Chimps, and One Bonobo

In addition to the lobbying by the scientific and animal-rights communities, advances in movie-making technologies have also helped free great apes from commercial exploitation. The Planet of the Apes movie franchise has always used human actors to portray its mutant chimpanzees and orangutans, and the development of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and other special-effects tools has accelerated that trend. 

An actor in motion capture suit, on left, and the resutling CGI-generated ape on the right.
Actor in motion capture suit, left, and the final CGI version, right, of an ape character in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" movie, 2014.

Such technology enabled the makers of the 2014 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to do what no previous screenwriters had attempted: bring a bonobo to the big screen. Alas, that character, named Koba, had little in common with real, peace-loving bonobos; he was a deranged killer who supposedly had been driven insane by human medical experiments. Bonobo experts Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods (who are also Friends of Bonobos board members) pointed out on the Live Science website that no bonobo has ever been observed killing another one. Even individuals who have suffered terrible abuse in biomedical laboratories, such as Etumbe, rehabilitated at Lola ya Bonobo and later released into the Ekola ya Bonobo Community Reserve, have developed into gentle, healthy individuals. 

Actors wearing gray motion-capture clothing during the filming of "War for the Planet of the Apes."
Actors in "War for the Planet of the Apes" wear motion-capture suits. Credit: James Dittiger

In their commentary, Hare and Woods expressed the hope that in some future Planet of the Apes movie, “the filmmakers will have the courage to include bonobo females who will be the only ones humane enough to save the planet.” Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is scheduled for release in early May 2024, but no mention of any bonobos has yet surfaced online. 



Sources cited:



Jeannette De Wyze was a journalist at the San Diego Reader for 30 years. Today she’s a bonobo lover and supporter and the volunteer liaison between Women’s Empowerment International and the Nyaka Grannies Project in Uganda. She also raises service dogs for Canine Companions for Independence and is an active travel blogger.


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