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Is It Real? Or Is It a Summer Movie?

Paradoxes proliferate in the latest movies about animals

By Michael Mountain

In one of this summer’s two movies about chimpanzees, mad scientists kidnap a baby chimp, raise him as a human, and then abandon him to a laboratory.

In the other, mad scientists kidnap a baby chimp, raise him as a human, and then abandon him to a laboratory.
(Yes, you read that right!)

Project Nim is a real-life documentary about Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother so he could be raised in a human family as part of a bizarre scientific experiment in the 1970s. Although he was finally released to a sanctuary, Nim never recovered from what had been done to him, and he died at the young age of 26.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows a similar plot line at the beginning of the movie, except that the chimp, Caesar, reacts with less depression and more aggression. He escapes from the lab and starts sticking it to the humans. And, of course, in this case the story is fiction.

Or is it?

What happens in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in many ways less fiction and more prediction.

What happens in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in many ways less like fiction and more like prediction.

In the last few weeks, fears have been escalating about the potential for experiments to go awry in laboratories – especially when human DNA is being mixed with the DNA of other animals to produce animals that are hybrids and chimeras.

Already, 150 animal-human hybrid embryos have been produced in the U.K., and last week, a committee of scientists expressed considerable alarm over the possibility that experiments like these could result in a real Planet of the Apes scenario, with hybrid animals escaping from the lab and starting to reproduce in the wild. Indeed, since many of these kinds of experiments are kept super-secret, it’s entirely possible that there are already real human hybrids living in secret labs right now.

Professor Thomas Baldwin, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences, which produced the report, said that the possibility of humanoid apes should be taken seriously even if these hybrids don’t yet exist. (Meanwhile, here in the U.S., we have no idea what kinds of weird experiments may be taking place.)

The fact that a sci-fi movie may well become a case of truth being stranger than fiction is just one of the paradoxes in this year’s crop of animal-themed summer movies.

For example, one thing that always concerns people who care about animals is whether any were harmed in the making of a movie. In the two films discussed above, the answer is no. But in the making of two other (and more light-hearted) movies, the answer is emphatically yes.

While Project Nim and Rise of the Planet of the Apes will leave every audience thinking hard about the way we treat other animals, neither of those two productions involved any abuse of animals at all. Nim uses only documentary footage from decades ago, and Planet uses hi-tech computer-generated imagery (CGI) rather than real animals.

Rupert Wyatt, the director of Planet, said at a conference that using CGI was the first big decision he and his team made when planning the movie. Since the central theme of the movie is about humans mistreating and abusing captive animals, they agreed that it would have been a real disconnect to mistreat any animals in the making of the movie. Wyatt added that since the apes are the heroes and the humans are the villains, he couldn’t imagine a worse way of undercutting that message than by using real animals in the production.

While Project Nim and Planet of the Apes raise serious moral questions about our treatment of animals, two other animal-themed movies, Water for Elephants and Zookeeper, were designed as little more than feel-good entertainment. So it’s paradoxical that while Nim and Planet involved no mistreatment of animals in the making of the movies, those other two productions – a romance and a comedy – were horrendous for how the animals in them were treated.

Tai, the elephant who appears in both Water for Elephants and Zookeeper, had been systematically tortured into submission by the company that has “owned” her for most of her 45 years. (There’s video of this available in a separate story about her.)

And Tweet, the giraffe in Zookeeper, collapsed and died right there on the movie set.

Tweet the giraffe, one of the animals in Zookeeper, died on the set of the movie.

It’s a shame that while the producers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes went out of their way not to hurt animals in a movie that’s about mistreatment of animals, the producers of the two supposedly “feel-good” movies couldn’t have cared less about using animals who had been seriously abused for the sole purpose of having audiences laughing in the theater and movie companies laughing all the way to the bank.

A final thought: Project Nim and Rise of the Planet of the Apes both explore what might happen when apes become more human. But, of course, we already know the answer to that. The experiment has been in progress for a few thousand years – a relatively short time in evolutionary history. And we humans, the youngest of the ape family, are the result.

Jane Goodall, who has spent the better part of her life studying chimpanzees, often says that when she was young and idealistic, she thought that chimps were just like us humans, only better. “They’re not better,” she later concluded. “They’re just the same.”

Those of us who think we’re somewhat like chimps, only better, should pause to consider that the same applies to us: We’re not better; we’re just the same.