Everybody loves a chimp. Well, there are probably a few folks out there that don’t. But these are the same people that don’t like ice cream and spoiled the whole Santa Claus mythos for their little brothers and sisters, so poop on them. I, for one, have always been fascinated by chimps. They’re miniature versions of us, our closest genetic relative. They just have more hair, are unable to make verbal speech, and are forgiven easier when they crap their shorts. Chimps also make terrific actors. Their performances may be a little short of Oscar material…just a little…but you can bet your ass if a chimp is on that television or movie screen that they have your full attention. I wanted to know what it took to train a chimp to become a movie star, so I got in touch with Sid Yost over at the Amazing Animal Actors ranch and set up an appointment. I was going to get the firsthand experience of a lifetime.
Sid Yost, otherwise known as Ranger Rick Kelly on TV’s “Critter Gitters,” is the director at the Amazing Animals Ranch in Malibu, California. This is where he and the other trainers can care for and train their stable of animals, which includes three baby chimps, an African lion and a Bengal tiger. In the case of the three chimps, they are all descendants of the original space program. When they were rescued from a research laboratory and brought to the ranch to lead healthier, safer lives, it was the first time they had seen a human face without a mask covering it. Here on the ranch, the animals receive the best of care and are trained for television and movie shoots, as well as public appearances.
A bit dizzy from the drive through the long, winding canyon leading to the ranch, I finally pulled my car up to the secret location where Shelley, one of the trainers, and Kent, a friend of the ranch and the person responsible for introducing Sid to Hollywood, awaited myself and my lovely “assistant” with little two-and-a-half-year-old Cody standing between them, offering little welcome grunts as we approached. Not long after I got out of my car, I found one of my lifelong dreams coming true – to hold a chimp. At first, this was all too much to handle. Lucky for me when you go to pick up a chimp, they wrap their arms around your neck and do most of the work for you. Otherwise, I would’ve fallen over from the effort.
I chatted with Shelley a bit as she monitored Cody engaging in his morning playtime. This morning in specific, playtime included mugging for the camera and chewing on my tape recorder. Fortunately, the animals are trained to soft-bite, so there was no damage done to the recorder, nor my finger that managed to find its way into his mouth at one point.
Finished taking care of studio business on the phone, Sid joined us and the loving bond between he and the chimp was apparent from second one. “I’ve always wanted to be around animals, learn about them, share my life with them and have them share their life with me. I’ve always felt like this is what I’m meant to do.”
Those who worry that the animals are harmed when being trained for camerawork can put their fears to rest when it comes to Yost and crew. “There was a method created about 25 years ago called “affection training” using love, patience, calmness and consistency, which is the opposite of the old method of training which is the “fear method” – ‘Do this or I’ll hurt you.’ Our method is ‘Do this because you love to and because it might be fun and enriching for you.’ This is why our animals wind up being so kind in nature. As vicious as chimpanzees and lions and tigers can be, our animals are so well taken care of and are so happy because of the way they’re trained and raised that they’ve become full-contact animals and that makes them very attractive to Hollywood. So, what we’ve ended up doing is creating stars.”
But creating stars out of animals really isn’t Sid’s dream. When asked if he likes working within Hollywood he replied, “Sometimes. My whole thing is, if I could be on an island with just the animals and no people…every once in a while a beautiful woman could roll ashore, stay for about a week and then take off again…I’d be fine. I don’t really need to be around people.”
Get the rest of the interview in part two of SID YOST: LORD OF THE CHIMPS>>>