Local facility accused of chimpanzee abuse

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Owner says charges are “ridiculous.” Other than one person’s testimony, no concrete proof of allegations is given.

By Kim Zanti/Special to The Malibu Times

Recent allegations of abuse at a Malibu compound that trains chimpanzees for the entertainment industry has the owner saying the claims “are the most ridiculous thing.”

Researcher Sarah Baeckler was hired to investigate Amazing Animal Actors (AAA), located near the border of Ventura County, by the Chimpanzee Collaboratory, an alliance of eight primate welfare and conservation groups. Baeckler,

who holds a master’s degree in primatology, claims to have spent 14 months and 1,000 hours as a volunteer trainer documenting the alleged abuses. She delivered a five-page testimony at an October press conference, kicking off the alliance’s campaign to stop the use of chimpanzees in entertainment. A story subsequently appeared in Time magazine.

In a telephone interview, Baeckler said the Collaboratory was “acting on an overall sense that chimpanzees were being treated violently, though not specifically at Amazing Animal Actors.”

Baeckler alleges that trainers at AAA hit the chimpanzees to discipline them.

“If they bite someone, they are beaten,” she claimed. “If they don’t pay attention, they are beaten. Sometimes they are beaten without any provocation or for things that are completely out of their control.”

Owner and director of AAA, Sid Yost, said her claims are absolutely not true, and that “this is just one of those animal activists things in our business we have to deal with.”

As serious as Baeckler’s claims are, there is no video, audiotape or witnesses to support them. USDA, the federal agency that licenses and monitors exotic animal facilities, spokesperson Darby Holladay said, “We rely on the public to alert us to potential violations. However, just because someone issues a complaint, does not mean an investigation would proceed. An inquiry would most likely occur first where a veterinary medical officer would visit the site to make a determination.”

Yost started in television as a trainer for “Marlin Perkin’s Mutual of Omaha.” He has operated facilities in Florida and Arizona and started AAA two years ago. AAA has no record in California of USDA violations.

Yost said relationships between trainers and chimpanzees are based on “affection training,” a method that emphasizes love, patience and consistency.

In a written statement, Dr. Jane Goodall, a leader of the Collaboratory, wrote, “Although it is possible to train animals using only kindness, reward and praise, this requires the kind of time and patience which is usually lacking in the fast-moving world of entertainment and advertising.”

However, during two visits to observe the chimpanzees and trainers at AAA, one unannounced, no one raised a hand or voice to stop the chimps from biting, running away or to make them listen. A verbal command from Tobin, a trainer for four and a half years (who asked that only her first name be used), stopped Cody, a 3-and-half-year-old chimpanzee, from biting. To bring 6-and-half-year old chimp Angel and Cody back after running into the brush, Yost called their names and they returned to play nearby. Yost asked Angel to pick up a piece of paper that she had chewed and spit out. Angel picked up the paper and handed it to him. Three other chimpanzees, Tea’, Sable, and Apollo stayed in the cages during the visits.

Tobin said she admonishes the chimpanzees when necessary, and likened the action to a stern parent disciplining a child. She also said that Baeckler rarely had close contact with the chimpanzees and would not join them and their trainers on daily walks into the hills or on tree-climbing excursions.

Cody was very different than what Baeckler described. In her testimony she wrote “scientifically speaking, he is an anxious, fearful individual, and his insecurity probably stems from trauma he has experienced so far in his three years of life.” Yet Cody acted warm and friendly with Tobin, and like Angel, was relaxed, curious and affectionate with both trainers and visitors. When he slung his arms around Angel and hopped on her back for an uphill ride, he seemed exuberant. He also responded to tickling much like a young child, with an unforced and natural laugh.

Another discrepancy in Baeckler’s testimony was her description of the two chimpanzee cages. She wrote that the cages were “barren” and inaccurately reported their dimensions. Though by no means a natural habitat, the cages are equipped with toys, a mirror, blankets, gear for hanging and swinging, and a heated hutch. She described the cages as “roughly 10x10x8,” significantly smaller than their actual dimensions of 15x20x10.

Baeckler said her observations did not describe a “few bad apples,” such as three volunteers who were recently asked to leave for abusing the chimpanzees, rather the abuses were pervasive and came from the top down.

“They’re not monsters,” Baeckler said, “but they must be in some state of denial, or it’s so ingrained, they don’t even question the training.”

AAA has its supporters. Dan Haggerty, known as “Grizzly Adams” for his eponymous TV role, filmed with chimpanzees in Brazil for three years and was recently filming at AAA.

“If chimpanzees were beaten, they’d always be on their guard or flinching and would lash out at you,” Haggerty said. “I guarantee you that abuse is not going on here.”

As of the writing of this story, the Chimpanzee Collaboratory had not filed a complaint with the USDA.