I just watched a repeat of the program “Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History”, a documentary which originally appeared on the program “Nature” on PBS in November 2006.
The program documents the use of chimps captured as babies in Africa for the following purposes: entertainment (movies and circuses), space travel (send them up in a capsule and see what happens when they come back), the pet trade, pharmaceutical research, disease research (deliberately injecting them with AIDS or hepatitis, then performing repeated liver biopsies), high-velocity test crashes, and medical device tests. In one case, they removed a vertebrae from a chimp, replaced it with an artificial one, then removed the artificial one, leaving the animal with a gap in its spine. To see what would happen.
Many of the chimps had a triple whammy, starting out as a circus animal, becoming a pet or vice versa, then being sold to a lab for testing.
The story highlights the lives of several individual chimps, among them, Ron and Thoto. Ron was an older chimp, 42 years old I believe, who had lived his entire life in a cage, at least since his capture. He was living in a facility in Alamagordo, Mexico. The people who took over that facility removed the walls between the cages–the best that they could do–so that the chimps could at least socialize with others. And Ron made a friend–Thoto, who was much younger than he was. The people in charge were working to move all the chimps at Alamagordo to sanctuaries, including one in central Florida. Then Ron developed congestive heart failure. The people at Alamagorda were determined that he be free again before he died, so his transfer was accelerated and they sent Thoto with him, to calm him.
At the sanctuary, they opened the window to Ron’s cage, the first opportunity he’d had in 40 years to feel grass on his feet or see the sky. Just outside the window was a sort of sidewalk. And he couldn’t do it. He paced for a short while along the concrete of the sidewalk, then climbed back into his window.
Then they let Thoto out. He raced across the grass and climbed a tree. That he could remember how to climb a tree is amazing. That night, they could never get him to come back in. He spent the night outside under the full moon.
His friend Ron could not remember how to climb a tree, if he ever knew how.
Remember that in Midnight Cowboy, Ratso Rizzo’s (Ron’s) dream is to move to Florida. He spends long nights in his alley (cage) dreaming of what life will be like for him there. He makes a friend (Thoto), who eventually makes it possible for him, except Ratso dies on the bus on the way there. You get the sense that the dream and the friendship, rather than the actuality, was the important thing for Ratso–as it is perhaps for all of us. And that Ratso would never have made it in real life in Florida…just like Ron.