Nature "Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History" on WXXI-TV

Nature "Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History" on WXXI-TV

Sun, 06/20/2010 - 8:00pm

Jeannie lives at the Fauna Foundation in Carignan, Quebec.

Credit: Tony Beck ©EBC

Remarkable individuals give chimpanzees a new lease on life.

We enlisted them in the space race and the fight against AIDS; we trained them to entertain us in the circus, in Hollywood and on TV. With almost 99 percent of the same DNA as humans, chimpanzees are genetically closer to us than they are to gorillas. But their treatment in America over the last half-century has been surprisingly unkind for our next of kin in the animal world.

These chimpanzees' stories, along with the remarkable efforts by individuals and organizations to give them a second chance at a life of freedom, are told in NATURE "Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History, " encoring Sunday, June 20 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT 21.1/cable 1011 and 11). Award-winning filmmaker Allison Argo, producer, writer and director of the film, narrates. 

"We're fortunate to be working again with Allison Argo, whose last film for NATURE, "The Urban Elephant," was recognized with two Emmy Awards," notes Fred Kaufman, executive producer of NATURE. "Once again Allison has crafted a powerful story, taking us inside some inspiring efforts happening right now to give chimpanzees a new, better life."

In 1959, the United States Air Force captured dozens of baby chimpanzees in Africa, transporting them to Alamogordo, New Mexico, where they and their offspring were to endure a grueling life as the ultimate human stand-ins. From experiments in space travel and high-velocity crash tests, to pharmaceutical testing and hepatitis and AIDS research, to roles on the silver and small screens, these original Air Force chimpanzees and others that followed gave their lives to benefit humankind - and now a few extraordinary people are working to give those lives back.

Dr. Carole Noon, founder and director of the organization Save the Chimps, is one of those individuals. With her group, she is working to create a multi-island habitat in central Florida, the single largest effort on behalf of chimpanzees in North America. Through the story of Lou, a 42-year-old Air Force chimp, viewers learn how the government eventually leased its chimpanzees to the Coulston Foundation, which was repeatedly fined for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. In September 2002, battling bankruptcy, Coulston sold its animals to Save the Chimps, and Noon became custodian of more than 260 chimpanzees. "I find all of this heartbreaking," says Noon, surveying the former Coulston facilities, which she has been overhauling for several years. The program also witnesses the journey of two chimps, Ron and Thoto, from New Mexico to a new life of freedom in Florida, where on his first night, Thoto refuses to come inside, choosing instead to spend it beneath the moon and stars. 

Outside Montreal, Canada, Gloria Grow and her veterinarian husband run Fauna Sanctuary, where they took in 15 chimpanzees - eight of which were infected with HIV in a laboratory. At Fauna, "Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History" records a poignant reunion between Billy Jo and his former owner, Bob Heath, who haven't seen each other in 20 years - before Heath had a family and Billy Jo HIV. "I didn't know if all those years would have made him meaner and more aggressive," says Heath, as he and Grow hold back tears. "He's still got that playful side to him."

Pat Ring, who previously owned Fauna's land, returns to visit Grow and the chimpanzees periodically. "There's no way I could forgive like they forgive," says Ring. "And we're supposed to be human and smarter. I don't know who's smarter." Grow, like Noon, has sought to build island habitats, and after years of delays she receives permission from the local government. "This is all he's ever wanted," she says through tears of joy as Billy Jo is released onto the island, touching grass and seeing the sky without a cage overhead for the first time in more than 20 years.

This program is offered with Descriptive Video (DVi), which provides concise descriptions of the sets, scenery, costumes, action, and other important visual elements between the dialogue of the program.