Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History

November 4, 2006

TV Review: 'Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History'

An Up-Close Look at a 2 Percent Difference


Lou is 42. He was born in Africa but came to the United States as a 2-year-old and has spent most of his life in New Mexico.

For years he was subjected to risky, often painful biomedical experiments there. One additional biographical detail — that Lou is a chimpanzee — should not diminish the sympathy that viewers feel because of his ordeal.

Allison Argo, who wrote, directed and produced “Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History,” the season premiere episode of “Nature,” has made a touching and persuasive political documentary. She begins by reminding viewers that more than 98 percent of chimpanzee DNA is the same as human DNA. Which makes Lou 98 percent human. Or, if you prefer to look at things from the other side, it makes Albert Einstein, Catherine Deneuve, the Kennedys, the British royal family, the Dixie Chicks, the New York Philharmonic, the pope and, of course, Charles Darwin 98 percent chimpanzee.

“Chimpanzees,” which will be shown on most PBS stations tomorrow night, tugs at the heartstrings, but tastefully. Sad, slightly sentimental music and luscious nature photography drive home the story of the thousands of chimpanzees who have been brought to the United States, mostly for human profit in medical research and the entertainment industry. (There are short film clips of two small chimps in a boxing ring and of Cheetah in a trailer for an early Tarzan movie.)

Happily this is also the story of humans who are dedicated to making the chimpanzees’ remaining years far less traumatic.

Some of the animals’ stories are told individually. Ham was shot into space by NASA, paving the way for Alan B. Shepard Jr., John H. Glenn Jr. and their fellow astronauts. Billy Joe, whose favorite meal is spaghetti, was in show business. Then he was sent to a research laboratory where he was inoculated at least twice with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. Tom spent decades at the same place.

The narrator and various experts talk about the animals’ intelligence, emotions, psychological needs and tendencies to live in families and other social groups. Then one chimpanzee delicately wipes his mouth with paper napkins as he eats an ice cream cone, making all the explanations unnecessary.

These chimpanzees cannot be returned to the wild because they don’t have the necessary survival skills. But organizations like Save the Chimps are making efforts to care for them and to have new homes built for them where they can run free.

The final scene shows Tom, after 30 years in a steel cage, exploring his new island habitat. He runs, he holds his head high and he purposefully, elegantly climbs a tree to survey the landscape. The dignity and elation are palpable. He might as well be a Shakespearean king.


An Unnatural History

On most PBS stations tomorrow night (check local listings).

Directed, written, produced, and narrated by Allison Argo; produced by ArgoFilms. Produced by Thirteen/WNET New York; Fred Kaufman, executive producer; William Grant, producer at large.

Informant: binstock


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