Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

The Rise of Primatology: The Hollywood Consult!

August 12, 2011

Last week’s discussion in this space, “Are We Over-Connected to Chimpanzees,” worked just as I’d hoped. It brought in cogent comments about whether, and how, we humans tend towards inappropriate emotional connections with our closest living relatives, out of some misplaced sense of romanticism. The discussion was sparked by the transformation that chimpanzees undergo – towards a decidedly human-like expression of intelligence, in some people’s view—in the new “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” film.

A few days ago, I saw—and enjoyed—the film. What struck me most powerfully as a long-time observer of apes is the genuine nature of the apes’ social interactions, right down to certain manual gestures that play key roles in plot turns. (I’m writing vaguely to avoid spoilers!)

So, as the film ended and people began to file out, discussing Caesar the leader chimpanzee and Maurice the gentle and smart orangutan, I sat in my seat, squinting at the endless rolling credits. Near the end, I found the phrase I was waiting for: “Primate Consultant -- Michael J. Reid.” Back home, I contacted Reid, a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Toronto in Canada. Mike kindly agreed to be interviewed here. Our exchange is as follows:

How did your involvement as primate consultant with the movie come about?
Did the phone just ring one day and.... it was Hollywood on the other end?

Actually, this is a funny story (well, at least funny to me). I got an email saying that they were working on a film in Vancouver and needed someone local to meet with the producers/writers/director the next week. I actually thought it was a joke being played by some friends as I was going to be in Vancouver for the week for the wedding of two very close friends of mine (I was the best man). I didn't even respond to the email because I thought it was a joke but after a few minutes of thinking, I thought "well maybe I should call the phone number at the bottom of the email". I called and the phone was answered with "production office". I knew it was for real at that point. I have to give a lot of credit to my friend and web designer Ally Noormohamed who has designed two websites for me (see Reid) and that's how the Production Coordinator Patricia Foster found me.

What happened when you went to Vancouver? What kinds of suggestions did you make to the film's production team? Was there something you hoped to help movie-goers come to see about apes, that they might not have known going in?

I met with the film's production team and director in a large boardroom where they all asked me questions about apes and ape behavior. and how apes might respond in certain situations. They were also curious about communication skills and some of my experiences with apes and ape personalities. I was honestly just hoping that the behavior of the apes in the movie would be as accurate as possible. This production team had already gone a lot further than most by spending time with apes and asking very informed questions. They did an amazing job with making the apes behave in a believable and accurate way. I also was happy to be involved as the production team made a very informed choice to not use live apes in the movie as apes in entertainment often live less than ideal lives.

You've seen the finished product, I'm sure-- what do you think?

I went opening night with a number of friends. It was great! Even if I hadn't worked on the film I would have been a huge fan. I was amazed by the reality of the CGI and the acting of Andy Serkis as Caesar.

How would you reply to a skeptic who feels that the film apes are overly aggressive, thus cementing in viewers' minds a skewed image of what apes are really like?

I think anyone that works with apes, especially chimpanzees, will admit that apes can be aggressive. Chimps are most like us in many of their aggressive behaviors and behavior patterns. I think if you watch the movie closely what you will notice is that the apes only respond aggressively when pushed by the humans or when a "friend" (be it human or other ape) is threatened. I think this is an accurate depiction of when apes can be their most dangerous. Otherwise they tend to be fairly non-aggressive to humans. Also there are a number of scenes in the movie when Caesar stops other apes from killing humans showing much more compassion than we do towards many apes all over the planet.

Mike, I agree—I noticed that the filmmakers were very careful to contextualize the ape aggression, such that the apes were not, if you will, gratuitously violent, but rather almost always responding when protecting an ally or when directly threatened.

You’ve done fieldwork with macaques (monkeys) and orangutans (apes). Could you describe some of your past work in primatology and in conservation medicine?

My first work in primatology was with a field school in Belize studying howler monkeys. Since then I have concentrated mostly on working in Southeast Asia with orangutans and macaques. For my Masters degree, I looked at the occurrences of malaria parasites in orphaned orangutans living in Indonesian Borneo. Up until that point no formal malaria studies had been done on orangutans living in Indonesian Borneo. I was especially interested in cross-species transmission and the threat of malaria to orphaned animals and the possibility that human malaria could be passed to orangutans.

Since then I have continued to further study malaria in orangutans while also working with the primate retroviruses simian foamy virus (SFV) and orangutan specific primate t-lymphotropic virus (PTLV). Specifically I am looking at the evolutionary history and geographic distribution patterns of these diseases. This work has the potential to inform us on how diseases evolve and are passed between species. I have also been present for the two major great ape disease conferences including the one where the Great Ape Health Monitoring Unit (GAHMU) was established and a follow-up meeting in Entebbe, Uganda.

Now you're at the University of Toronto as a PhD candidate.  How's the dissertation process going?

I am finally in the writing stage and hopefully I will be able to defend my thesis within the next year. I hope to continue my work with apes studying disease evolution and the potential impacts of disease on conservation efforts.

Thank you, Mike, and congratulations on a film job well done - I’ll be looking for your primatology work in the future.

Blog readers- have you seen the film? What do you think about how the apes were portrayed?


  1. August 19, 2011 9:38 PM EDT
    I saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes a couple of evenings ago. First, i am a big fan of Michael Reid. I am not however a fan of the movie. I thought the story was very clever but the chimpanzees faces and postures were way too menacing for me (and this is from someone that understands how aggressive chimpanzees can be).
    - Sian Evans
  2. August 19, 2011 10:59 PM EDT
    Interesting point, Sian. Have you (I can't recall this now) read Steve Ross's blog post that makes a similar point? If not, I'll find the link.
    - Barbara J. King
  3. August 21, 2011 4:00 PM EDT
    No - I have not read it but would like to. Hard to imagine that Steve Ross and I would agree on anything. However, happy to be wrong in this case.
    - Sian Evans
  4. August 21, 2011 5:58 PM EDT
    Here it is, Sian (you'll probably have to cut and paste, which is annoying I know). I would love to know your response:
    - Barbara J. King
  5. August 24, 2011 8:34 PM EDT
    Like Steve I thought the orangutan was the most realistic of the greaat apes in the movie and that Project Nim is much more affecting. However, my problem with the movie was less that the chimpanzees behaved aggressively but more that they seemed tense, their facial expressions missed the mark and their body postures were typically menacing (even when they were not being agressive). That's not to say that I'm not concerned about the aggressive behavior they displayed in the movie but my perception of the "essential chimpanzee" was missing and replaced by something alien and much more frightening. Yes - I own up to a certain amount of fear of chimpanzees that I acquired at CIRMF in Gabon when I did my observations during the prolonged mid-day siesta when no humans were around. It was just me and the chimpanzees and I was frequently (and irrationally) afraid and the fear came from deep inside me. Interestingly when Bob and I took our toddler son to see the gorillas he was very relaxed but when he saw the chimpanzees he bawled and asked to leave immediately. This was a kid that really liked (and still does) handling snakes.
    - Sian Evans

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.