November 4, 2006
An Up-Close Look at a 2 Percent Difference
By ANITA GATES
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.