Originally published Friday, August 12, 2011 at 3:09 PM

Guest columnist

Depiction of lab animals in 'Planet of the Apes' disturbingly accurate

Moviegoers are flocking to "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Guest columnist Debra Durham, a primatologist, attests to the accuracy of lab conditions depicted in the film. She urges passage of a law to phase out invasive testing of great apes and retire most to sanctuaries.

Special to The Times

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I JUST went to see the new summer blockbuster, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

As a primatologist who has traveled the world to study chimpanzees and other primates, I noticed a few science bloopers here and there, but I was impressed by what the film got right, too. For example, great apes really are intelligent, sensitive, complex individuals. Research has shown they have impressive cognitive skills, even beating humans in advanced memory tests.

Sprinkled in with its suspense and action, the film is full of other realities about our great ape cousins. They are sometimes caught in snares in the wild and can end up in the illegal wildlife trade. All great apes are teetering on the brink of extinction.

Closer to home, cute baby apes are bought as pets but abandoned or sold when they become too big and strong to manage. Though this movie used mind-blowing special effects and talented actors to portray its primate characters, Hollywood sometimes uses real apes like props, but just for a while. These actors end up in roadside zoos and exhibits when production wraps.

Using chimpanzees in lab experiments isn't science fiction at all — at least not in the United States. We stand virtually alone in the global community by continuing this practice.

More than 1,000 chimpanzees are kept in labs, going from one experiment to the next until they die. The cages in the film were legit. Small. Barren. Scary.

Some apes, like the movie character Caesar, were born in labs while others were stolen from the wild and have been in experiments for 30, 40 or even 50 years.

Getting great apes out of labs wouldn't take special effects or suspenseful plot twists. It would just take a vote.

Legislation that would phase out invasive experiment on great apes and retire most to sanctuaries has been introduced in Congress (HR 1513 and S 810). It's not the end-all answer for the debt ceiling, but it could save the federal government about $30 million every year. That makes it a win all around.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, were leaders in getting this legislation introduced. The movie is a reminder to get the law passed.

The planet of the apes is our planet.

In our version of this story, let's be the heroes who conserve and protect them.

Debra Durham of Seattle is a primatologist and ethologist.


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