Primate Rescue Center

Cobby the Chimp: Searching for the Sugarman of the Ape World

Erika Fleury May 09, 2015

If you switched on the TV in Adelaide or Bendigo in the early 1960s, there’s a chance you’d be confronted with a short-lived show involving a chimpanzee dressed as an angel with a voice that sounded a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor.

US-made Cobby’s Hobbies featured a chimp, the eponymous Cobby, trying out a new activity in each four-minute episode. Around 150 of these exercises in ape-related surrealism were made and were shown on two regional TV networks in Australia.

“There was a set that Cobby would be put in and he’d play all of the parts, including his wife, Cobina, and also his own conscience, which was dressed as an angel,” says Donna McRae, a filmmaker and Deakin University researcher. “It was all very Shakespearean, really.”

Cobby the chimp. Image courtesy Calvin Productions via Deakin University.

One episode, Charm School, saw Cobby encouraging Cobina to walk around the room with a book on her head. Another showed Cobby as a fortune teller. The episodes were compiled of single shots, with clunky cuts between each of the characters Cobby played. “Cobby’s inner monologue would narrate the episodes,” McRae explains. “Cobina sounded a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor, while his conscience sounded like a classically trained English actor. Cobby himself sounded like he was from the Bronx.”

McRae, who is making a film about Cobby’s short-lived fame, said she spoke to the daughters of Cobby’s trainer, who admitted the incongruous accents were perhaps a reason the show didn’t take off. Calvin Productions, which made Cobby’s Hobbies in Kansas City, hoped the show would catch on in America’s lucrative children’s TV market but it wasn’t syndicated. After filming wrapped in 1964, Cobby was donated to San Francisco zoo, where he remains.

McRae said she grew up watching Cobby’s Hobbies and still recalls the show’s them tune. She imagined her film would be a kind of “Searching for Sugarman with chimps” but the more she delved into the world of chimpanzees, a different picture started to emerge. “After a while I realised the plight of chimps,” she says. “When I was a child I had no idea what was going on and until I did this I thought it was all very cute. I now realise they shouldn’t be dressed up in clothes, used in advertising and put in cages by themselves.”

The import of exotic animals such as chimps is now illegal in Australia and the US. But animal welfare groups continue to express alarm globally at the use of chimps in film and TV work, as well as their presence in roadside zoos, the illegal pet trade and for medical experiments. A series of Trunk Monkey commercials in the US, where a chimp is kept in the boot of a car only to be released to help deliver a baby or fight off young yobs, have been roundly condemned, as has the use of chimps in the Chinese reality show Wonderful Friends.

“It’s hard to believe there would be a show like Cobby’s Hobbies these days, but we still see chimps in advertising,” says Nancy Maloney, chief executive of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia. “We all like to look at chimps, but I don’t think people realise how harmful this is to them. They are removed from their natural habitats and then often mistreated so they do what people want them to do for TV. Once they are no longer deemed to be of use, they are often abandoned or euthanised.”

Most chimps seen on screen are infants, given adult chimps are around seven times as strong as adult humans and can cause severe injuries in certain situations. Even so, young chimps often have their teeth removed or are beaten in order to comply with the demands of the entertainment world. “Young chimps are basically made to do things through force or coercion and then locked away until they are next needed,” says Dr Carla Litchfield, an expert in primate behaviour at the University of South Australia. “They are made to do unnatural things like smiling for greetings cards. It looks like they are doing a funny smile, but for a chimp that’s a fear grimace. When chimps laugh the top of their face goes floppy but that bared teeth grin isn’t happiness, they are afraid.”

Litchfield says the continued use of chimps in entertainment is damaging to the wider conservation effort to save the species, which is endangered due to habitat clearing and poaching, despite being the most similar species to humans, genetically speaking. “We tell countries in Africa to not hunt and poach chimps and then they see western countries keeping them as pets and dressing them up in clothes,” she says. “This hypocrisy is damaging for conservation, as is the perception that chimps are common because they are seen on the TV all the time. “They aren’t funny little humans we should laugh at, they are incredibly impressive animals that you’re in awe of when you see them in the wild.”

McRae’s film, Cobby: The Dark Side of Cute, is currently the subject of a Pozible crowdfunding campaign, in order to find the final $11,000 to finish off the work.

- The Guardian

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