Media | Science

July 28, 2005

Meet Mikey, Chimpanzee Cover Boy

Chimps are our closest relatives. And the young ones just happen to be very cute. By using them to sell magazines and other products, are we exploiting them or helping to save them?

David Goldenberg

Courtesy New York Times Magazine
Mikey isn't ready to retire yet.
This week's New York Times Magazine has a long piece about a new taxpayer-supported $30 million chimpanzee sanctuary that was specially created to emulate the forest atmosphere for those chimpanzees who have been kept as experimental subjects, pets, and workers in the entertainment industry. About those refugees from show business, Charles Siebert writes, "...their ranks continue to swell even though chimps are unmanageable much past the age of 6 and despite the fact that advances in computer animation may soon obviate altogether the need for actual animal performers." That particular technological advance has not yet gained widespread use, meaning that any pictures of comically costumed chimps we see come from those individuals who are still toiling away under the hot lights. (Until, of course, they turn six and are then "unmanageable.") Ironically, one of those chimps is on the front cover of the Times Magazine promoting that same article, dressed preposterously as an elderly man on a beach, cautiously enjoying the sundown of his life.

Mikey, as this particular chimp is known, is not an old man but a three-year old, a young child even by chimpanzee standards. Mikey has the characteristically pale face of very young chimps, which will darken significantly as he grows older. Older chimps are not often seen in the entertainment industry, not just because they are "unmanageable," but because their dark faces are considered distinctly less cute. Mikey belongs to Judie Harrison of Elkton, Maryland, who has worked with monkeys and apes in the entertainment business since opening Monkey Business three years ago. She now takes her act on the road, and Mikey is her young star.

Harrison, 47, and her husband bought Mikey, and an even younger chimp, Louie, from a private breeder at a cost of somewhere between $45,000 and $60,000 each. (Harrison won't say exactly how much they cost, nor will she name the breeder from whom she bought them.) "One is a second mortgage," she tells Gelf, "and the other is a third mortgage."

Among the many services that Monkey Business performs are public appearances at basketball games, photo ops at birthday parties, and the delivery of Chimp Grams in which Mikey, dressed in anything from a clown outfit to tails, brings balloons and a card to that special someone. In September, Monkey Business plans to open a permanent location called Party Safari that, according to its voicemail message, will feature "jungle-themed party rooms" and the opportunity to "have your photo taken with your favorite jungle friends." Mikey has also appeared in several advertisements and television shows, including Saturday Night Live, FHM magazine, as well as the cover of the Goodie Mob album, One Monkey Don't Stop No Show. (See more of Mikey's credits here.)

When the call came that the Times Magazine wanted to do a photo shoot, Harrison and Mikey drove up to the city, knowing little about the article for which they were posing. Once they found out, Harrison was a little bit upset. "My agent said if she had known [the subject of the article], she would have never even called me for the job," Harrison says. It's not that Harrison disagrees with the idea of sanctuaries; it's that she was afraid that it would misrepresent the situation in which her chimpanzees are kept. "I don't want people to think, 'Oh, that poor chimp,' " she says.

Indeed, Harrison vehemently disagrees with Siebert's statement that chimps older than six become unmanageable. And she feels that comparing her with scientists who do experiments on chimps is totally unfair. "I think anyone who has any part of [the experiments] should be shot," she says. "I'm not inflicting pain. I'm not jailing them up in jail cells." (Incidentally, Harrison has no such problems with the actual shoot. "The cover was so easy," Harrison says. "Mikey just had to sit in the beach chair. He's looking at me off to the left.")

Though Harrison has no formal training, she believes she is learning enough to care for Mikey into adulthood. "He's going to teach me and I'm going to teach him," says Harrison. She's also not worried that her chimps will become "unmanageable" once they grow substantially. Certainly, chimps continue to get bigger and stronger, and can do considerable damage. Earlier this year, St. James Davis was severely mauled by chimps—his foot, testicles, and part of his face were ripped off—as he and his wife visited their former pet chimp at an animal sanctuary in California (AP). But Harrison is not worried. "I understand their strength," she says. "Mikey is by far stronger than me now," she adds, recounting how the chimp once playfully broke off one of her molars at the root with one finger.

Courtesy Judie Harrison
Cerise Harrison with Louie (left) and Judie Harrison with Mikey.
When fully grown, Mikey will be four feet tall and weigh over 100 pounds. But Harrison says she has a plan for him and Louie once they get older. She's planning to take their earnings from photo shoots and parties and build them a $1.2 million habitat on five acres of land that her family owns as a kind of mini-sanctuary. (How long that will take is unclear, as she refuses to divulge how much her chimps make for their services.) Chimps can live for an incredibly long time, though—at 73, Cheeta, the costar of 12 different Tarzan movies in the 1930s and 40s, is still living in Palm Springs. Knowing that, Harrison has no more plans to buy more chimps—"Unfortunately, I won't get to see them grow old as is"—and she's willed Mikey and Louie to her youngest daughter, Cerise, age 19.

On the Jane Goodall Institute website, Goodall lists several problems with having chimps in the entertainment business, stating that even when young chimps are not abused by their handlers, they still suffer psychologically from being separated from their mothers at a young age. (In the wild, most chimps stay with their mothers until at least the age of eight.) Moreover, the fact that the chimps seen on TV and in advertisements are juveniles creates the false impression that these apes are cute and manageable pets, which in turn perpetuates the trade, Goodall says.

"Performing chimps are living ordinary, social lives," counters Harrison's husband, Greg. "No, they're not in the wild with other chimps, but who's to say that's the right answer? It's a matter of opinion. We're not child molesters."

The Harrisons contend that conservation groups like the Jane Goodall Institute are hypocritical, and that those organizations are more than willing to raise money using cute captive chimps as mascots. "If you look behind the scenes, they're doing the exact same thing," Judie says. Nona Gandelman, the VP of Communications for the Jane Goodall Institute, tells Gelf that while one or two sponsors for events involving Goodall might have thought it was a good idea to have a chimp like Mikey come and pose with her, the institute would have declined immediately. "It's a no-brainer," she tells Gelf. (Disclosure: I was a coauthor on a paper about chimpanzees with Goodall.)

Other conservation groups, including the Great Ape Project, have filed letters to city councils around Maryland asking them to refuse permits for the Harrisons to set up shop. After Ocean City's city council rejected their petition to lease a performance space on the town's boardwalk, Doug Cress of the Great Ape Project, who has complained loudly about the Harrisons in the past, told the Delaware News Journal that Harrison's operation was much worse than a zoo. "If anything, she's a carnival sideshow," he said.

I mention Cress's comments to Judie Harrison and ask her if she's heard of him. "I should know his name because I told him off," she says. Her husband Greg adds, "If it weren't for humans breeding exotic animals, they'd be extinct. The people that spend so much time worrying about who's in FHM or on the cover of the New York Times Magazine are wasting resources. If they put that kind of time, money, and effort into protecting animals in the wild, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

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- Science
- posted on Aug 28, 07

If I was interested in purchasing a chimp, where would I get one?

- Science
- posted on Apr 08, 08

Im 13. i've always been interested in chimpanzees. All my friends always compare me too them because i know so much about them. When i saw your're article in the newspaper today i immediatly went to find more info. If you have any more information i would love to learn about it!

- Science
- posted on Apr 25, 09

Yeah...Great Story...All about the Judie(the Second wife of Greg) and Greg Harrison who are so lying and dishonest..He did not even come to Our mother's funeral last year..and has Screwed Our family out of so much money to buy those chimps it is ridiculous.And my neice, Cerise..well let's say she is lucky to be safe right now away from Those two. Do more researchg before you step into a room and waste the time to interview these people.

- Science
- posted on Sep 13, 09
a neighbor

To Sh, Suzanne Harrison. First off you don't know Judie because she knew what type of person you were from the very beginning and decided to stay away from you. Second, Greg did NOT take money from the family to buy the Chimpanzees. As stated in the article, they were 2nd and third mortgages. You have no room to talk, married 5 times, and the Harrison FAMILY BOUGHT YOU YOUR HOUSE. Try to keep your mouth closed, when it comes to things you have no idea about.

- Science
- posted on Oct 08, 09

it's so fun when i so a chimpanzee i was afraid to look. we can touch but when i touch it going to kill me but i escape.

- Science
- posted on May 12, 11

You do not want to purchase a chimp. They are not pets and cannot be safely handled as adults. The woman in this article, Judie Harrison, gave her young chimps to a zoo when she could no longer control them, but not before abusing them with shock collars, metal toothpicks, and whips in a failed attempt to bring them under control.

Article by David Goldenberg

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