Originally created 11/05/06

25th-anniversary 'Nature' examines captive chimps



PASADENA, Ca. - Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History is a program that will probably make many viewers cry.

Allison Argo felt, however, that she had to stay as dry-eyed and clear-sighted as possible while making this documentary, which she also narrates.

It can't have been easy.

The documentary (8 tonight on television station WEBA (Channel 14), launches the 25th season of PBS' Nature. It explores the sad story of generations of captive chimps - our very genetically close relatives, with almost 99 percent of the same DNA as humans.

"I try not to tell people what they should feel or think in the film," the filmmaker said. "As I was writing the narration I kept saying, 'Just the facts. No comment. Don't get emotional,' and again when I was reading it, the same, because you don't need to.

"Let people decide what they want to decide. Just present the story, present the characters, which are the chimps."

Gloria Grow doesn't have any intention of being objective. Her eyes often rimmed with tears as she accompanied Ms. Argo to news conferences and interviews to discuss the documentary.

Ms. Grow and her husband, veterinarian Richard Allan, run the Fauna Foundation, which has become a haven for abused animals, including chimps used in biological research. Even chimps that were once people's pets, or performed to audience laughter in circuses and commercials, can end up in research facilities. After they get to about 5 or 6 years old and can no longer be handled safely, they often are dumped in medical laboratories or imprisoned in isolation.

Ms. Grow's nonprofit foundation, based near Montreal, is featured in the documentary.

So, too, is Dr. Carole Noon's Save the Chimps group, of which she is founder and director. The nonprofit central Florida organization works to create a safe and suitable habitat for chimpanzees, such as those used in numerous experiments by the Air Force, which in 1959 captured dozens of baby chimps in Africa. These naturally social animals, whose life span in the wild mirrors that of humans, have long been locked into separate cages, taken out only to be used in grueling, dangerous, and painful research, which might or might not ultimately benefit mankind.

One of the chimps featured in the program is Lou, a 42-year-old veteran of the Air Force programs.

"(The documentary is about) the chimps having a voice finally," Ms. Grow said. "Allison Argo was able to speak on their behalf ... about the tragedy of their lives."

The sight of an aged chimp, a victim of years of confinement, trying to summon up the courage to walk free beneath the sky is just one of the many emotional moments in Ms. Argo's movie.

"I'm not a raving animal-rights person, but I do think there needs for accountability," Ms. Argo said.