Curtain Call For Hollywood's Orangutans

You might know Rocky, one of the most media-exposed orangutans. Perhaps you saw him with Fergie in a spread for Elle magazine's July 2007 Music Issue. Or maybe you recall him in a tiara in a Capital One credit card commercial.

But you probably won't be seeing orangutans on the television screen any more. And in about 10 years, scientists fear, you might not be seeing orangutans at all.

To counter a misconception that orangutans are not threatened, a myth fostered by their public portrayal, the Great Ape Trust in Iowa will now care for orangutans that have been transferred from the only remaining orangutan trainer in Hollywood. Those who would protect the apes see the move as a great victory.

"Seeing apes in entertainment may lead people to believe that conservation is not an issue for them," said Robert Shumaker, the director of orangutan research at the Great Ape Trust. "If that diminishes concern for conservation, then that's a problem."

Already Rocky and Katy are settling in to their new Midwest home. And following their month-long acclimation period, they will be introduced to the other orangutans – Azi, Allie and Knobie – who already call the Great Ape Trust home.

The bigger problem

Orangutans, the only great ape found outside of Africa, may be the first great ape to go extinct if current trends do not change. With 6,600 Sumatran orangutans in the wild, this species is critically endangered, according to the 2007 Red List of Threatened Species released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The other orangutan species, the Bornean orangutan, is listed as endangered with fewer than 50,000 remaining.

Their fragile status underlies the magnitude of the decision by Steve and Donna Martin's Working Wildlife to transfer their orangutans from Hollywood to this Great Ape Trust.

"The fact that Steve Martin's place, which is one of the major players in the business, is taken out of Hollywood — now that's a major coup," said Steve Ross, a specialist in ape behavior and cognition at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo.

The Martins lately have represented the final frontier of orangutan trainers for the Hollywood entertainment industry following the closure of legendary chimp trainer Bob Dunn's Hollywood Animals in 2005. Dunn's apes, including Michael Jackson's chimp "Bubbles," were transferred to the privately-owned Center for Great Apes in Florida.

With Dunn and the Martins off the ape-trainer playing field, "the big boys are out," Ross told LiveScience.

Iowa dreamin'

Over the years, chimpanzees and orangutans have been the star apes of the entertainment industry. With hundreds of chimps in the hands of private owners and trainers, their protection has been a daunting challenge, says Zoo Atlanta’s Lori Perkins, chair of both the Orangutan Species Survival Plan and Association of Zoos and Aquarium's Animal Welfare Committee. But because significantly fewer orangutans are used nowadays as entertainers, Perkins realized recently that "there actually is a shot to get all orangutans out of the entertainment industry."

Upon hearing that the Martins were considering retiring some of their apes, Doug Cress of the Orangutan Conservancy contacted the couple on behalf of Shumaker. The conversation led to the orangutan transfer several months later.

Shumaker tried to acquire the Martins' orangutans on two conditions: They would transfer all of their orangutans to the Great Ape Trust, and they would no longer train orangutans.

For more than a year, the Martins had tried to focus on training non-ape animals such as big cats. Having already sent two of their eight orangutans into retirement at another California site, Steve and Donna Martin agreed to put the brakes on their role as ape trainers and transfer the remaining six orangutans to the Great Ape Trust.

"Luckily, we came along at a time when [the Martins] were open to the notion of change, and the Great Ape Trust was a perfect solution," said Cress. "This was as close to win-win as you can get."

And this transfer has a wider impact than simply retiring six orangutans from TV and movies. The Martins' decision may represent the end of an era, leaving no trainers in Hollywood to supply orangutans for the entertainment industry. It also makes a strong welfare and conservation statement, demonstrating that "there are people in the entertainment industry that probably realize that cooperation is the way to go," said Ross. But the future of these great apes is still not pristine.

You don't know ape

Orangutans in captivity have earned a reputation for communicating with computers and working with tools and symbols. And two 2007 studies indicate that they may be more intelligent than chimps. Harvard psychologist James Lee found orangutans had the best problem-solving ability among the 25 primates studied. And Duke primatologist Carel van Schaik observed Bornean orangutans outwitting chimps, making rain hats from leaves and constructing leak-free roofs above their nests.

No stranger to these clever creatures, the entertainment industry has used this intelligence to its advantage by placing orangutans in movies, television shows and commercials from Clint Eastwood's pet orangutan Clyde in the 1978 movie "Every Which Way But Loose," to a live-in orangutan nurse called "Precious" in the now-defunct soap opera "Passions" to Aflac and Levi's television commercials from the past few years.

Yet having amused the general public for decades, orangutans, with 97 percent of the same DNA as humans, are errantly perceived as subhuman clowns.

The depiction of chimps in movies, television shows, and commercials has led some people to think that these and other apes are not endangered, according to "Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees," a March 2008 review in Science magazine authored by Ross, Shumaker, and other scientists.

"This lack of awareness generally translates into a lack of concern and caring," said Zoo Atlanta's Perkins.

Entertaining extinction

Contrary to their portrayal on the screen, the orangutan species is definitely at risk. On the two Pacific islands where orangutans still live in the wild — Sumatra and Borneo — their population has decreased by 14 and 10 percent respectively since 2004, according to a recent study released in the journal Oryx.

The expansion of palm oil plantations on these islands is largely to blame for this decrease. Indonesia and Malaysia, the countries that contain Sumatra and Borneo, represent 80 percent of the global palm oil trade. (Borneo is divided between the three countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.)

And a study released in May by the Center for Orangutan Protection predicted that the orangutans living in a Bornean tropical jungle, which is home to almost half of the island's orangutan population, could be extinct by 2011. A local population of more than 30,000 in 2004 has plummeted to just 20,000 orangutans.

To make matters worse, the average birth rate of once every eight years is the longest time between births among mammals. This severely hinders the orangutans' ability to recover from these drastic drops in numbers.

So as the demand for biofuels powers the palm oil industry, it simultaneously threatens the orangutan's native habitat and future existence. But with the exception of token orangutans scattered across a few theme parks, the transfer of the six orangutans from the Martins to the Great Ape Trust has for all intents and purposes shut down, at least, the business of training orangutans to be entertainers.

"For orangutans in the entertainment industry, I think we're down to the single digits," said Zoo Atlanta's Perkins, "and that's a pretty cool thing to say."

  • Video – Meet Rocky
  • Video – Katy Settles In
  • Orangutan Populations Decline Sharply