What happens to animal TV stars when they’re no longer cute enough to amuse us? A new documentary by filmmakers Donna McRae and Michael Vale explores the consequences of using chimpanzees for our own entertainment.
If you grew up in Adelaide or Bendigo in the 1960s you might have caught the little-known US children’s TV show, ‘Cobby’s Hobbies’. Featuring Cobby the chimpanzee, each four-minute episode showed a costumed Cobby trying to master a different hobby.
Dr Donna McRae, filmmaker and lecturer in Screen and Design at Deakin University, grew up in Adelaide and never quite got the show’s musical theme out of her head. Searching on the internet for any reference to ‘Cobby’s Hobbies’ several years ago, she came across a forum devoted to the little chimp and decided to document her efforts to discover Cobby’s life after fame.
What she discovered about the fate of chimpanzees in the entertainment industry took the narrative of what became ‘Cobby: The Other Side of Cute’ in a darker direction.
“We just wanted to reveal what happened to Cobby,” Dr McRae said on the eve of the film’s long-awaited world premiere.
(Left) Cobby the chimpanzee as the star of the 1960s TV show, ‘Cobby’s Hobbies’. (Right) Cobby today at home in San Francisco Zoo.
“What we found out in the process was heart-breaking. The story we’ve ended up telling is one that examines how we perceive animals in entertainment and how we address their plight now, given that chimps are still bred for pets in the US while in the wild they are becoming extinct as their native habitats are destroyed.”
Chimps used in the entertainment industry are, by and large, babies, giving people a false perception of how big adult chimpanzees can grow. When chimps get to seven or eight years old they can become hard to control and difficult to portray as cute and funny.
Cobby was lucky – when his cuteness use-by date was up at the age of seven, his trainer gave him to the San Francisco Zoo, where he still lives with companions Maggie and Minnie. Not all former chimp child-stars were as fortunate.
“Most chimps in entertainment suffered horrific retirements. They ended up in roadside zoos, kept in cages, or worse, they were used for biomedical research. We’re talking about animals that have very long lives – Cobby will be 60 in June this year – and are as intelligent as a four-year old human. These are horrible conditions for them to live out their lives,” Dr McRae said.
“Fortunately, there has been a lot of work done and the biomedical research chimps are now being relocated into sanctuaries, but there are still so many chimps in captivity and not all of them end up in sanctuaries.”
The tale of Cobby and his fellow chimpanzee entertainers has taken some time to make it to the big screen – the documentary was the subject of a crowdfunding campaign in 2015 to raise money for the editing process – but the wait is over with the film having its premiere in Cobby’s adopted hometown at the San Francisco DocFest last weekend.
“We spent two years doing interviews in the US, Canada and Australia and then the editing took about a year to assemble,” Dr McRae said.
“With feature films, you’ve written the story, so you have it as a guide, but with a documentary the story in your head can change when you put it in the editing timeline and shuffle things around. There were so many ways to tell Cobby’s story, but we got there in the end.”
‘Cobby: The Other Side of Cute’ follows Cobby’s journey from his birthplace in the wild to TV stardom and then San Francisco Zoo, and includes interviews with his keeper, Kathy Edwards, the zoo’s curator of chimpanzees, and Dr Stephen Ross, Head of the US Species Survival Plan for Chimpanzees and Director of the Lester E Fisher Centre for the Study and Conservation of Apes.
The documentary is a departure from Dr McRae’s award-winning work in the world of ghost films and her most recent feature film, ‘Lost Gully Road’, but she sees parallels between them.
“Cobby is part of the past and memory, which is what ghost stories really draw on and it was my fascination with those things that led me to track down Cobby’s story in the first place,” she said.
“I remember the first time I saw him at San Francisco Zoo. I thought, ‘This fully-grown chimpanzee can’t be Cobby’, but really the Cobby I knew from TV was a total construct, completely different to this beautiful, sentient being I was standing in front of.”
Read more about ‘Cobby’s Hobbies’ and the background to ‘Cobby: The Other Side of Cute’:
‘Cobby: The Other Side of Cute’ official trailer
Published by Deakin Research on 5 June 2018