The Scientific Travesty Inspired By Ronald Reagan's Idiotic '50s B-Comedy
The nature-vs-nurture squabble has pitted biologists, anthropologists, ethicists, and sociologists in a never-ending steel-cage deathmatch. The common lab animal to gauge the validity of these theories has been primates. If you thought the movies depicting socialized simian sidekicks were embarrassing, wait until you hear about the actual scientific research.
Smack dab in the middle of the heyday in eugenics, Freud's theories on the psyche of man spawned interest in the study of the formation of the human mind. Heavy-duty stuff that raised numerous implications on evolution and the origins of morality, Hollywood took notice of the debate and did the sensible thing. They made a slapstick comedy about eugenics starring future-president Ronald Reagan and a suicidal monkey dressed as Dennis the Menace:
Iran Contra officially the second most humiliating moment in Ronnie's life.
Either a subtle rebuke of racial politics or an easy payday by a fading actor, 1951's Bedtime for Bonzo marked the high point of Regan's waistline and the low point of his acting résumé. To spare you a screening, we'll break down the plot. College professor Peter Boyd attempts to disprove he is not genetically predisposed to crime because his father was a career criminal by rearing a chimp as a polite human. Gaining a full grasp of human emotions, morality, and language, a chimpanzee named Bonzo lives happily ever after with his adoptive parents. It not only originated the trend of pet owners referring to their pets as their children but made a boatload too. Amazingly, it was so popular it got a sequel, this time about Bonzo attending college and being exploited by the NCAA as he suffers sixty minutes worth of brain injuries.
Pretty stupid, we know. Maurice and Jane Temerlin didn't think so. In the mid-'60s, the two trained psychologists at the University of Oklahoma took their cues from the corny old movie, buying into the theory that humanity could be conditioned into any suitable simian species provided the right tools and parenting. The test subject in the study, a young female chimp named Lucy, was lavished with the basic necessities and a few niceties to enrich her life. They gave her clothes, toys, and a comfy mattress and taught her American Sign Language and the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork. In their devotion to honoring Bedtime for Bonzo, the couple even hired an attractive young woman to act as a maternal figure. The part-time caretaker and research assistant recalled Lucy as smug and rude. The first step in assimilating the animal into upper-middle-class American society was complete: Lucy was already treating the hired help like garbage.
For reasons unclear, the family also gave the chimp access to pornography and copious amounts of alcohol in addition to an Easy-Bake Oven. Guess which one she took more interest in. Arriving home, the couple would frequently find their "daughter" on the couch leafing through Playgirl magazines while pleasuring herself with a vacuum attachment. Quite a departure from the innocent vacuum scene in the PG-13 film. In the B-comedy, Bonzo learned manners, and Ronald Reagan learned how to be a father. In reality, eleven years had driven Lucy to the delusion she was human, albeit with the upper body strength of several Olympic weight lifters, psychological issues, and a penchant for pummeling and biting strangers.
Scrambling to control their maturing chimp houseguest, the Temerlins sought out any solution to quell her mood swings and, uh, shall we say, "natural appetites." However, she rejected her chimp suitors as uncouth slobs. The dating pool for chimps with toilet training, a respectable career, a pension, and a love of preposterous headgear is minuscule. The chimp that played Bonzo was dead, and Ham, the NASA test chimp, was a bondage freak only interested in being tied up.
It was only a matter of time before Lucy ripped the mailman's dick off in a drunken bout of pent-up sexual confusion. Lucy had to go back to her natural habitat. Sadly, she didn't really have one. Film depictions omit out the part where adult chimps and orangutans are so scary and powerful that they no longer can be left in the custody of their owners. Like many grown-up chimpanzees, Lucy was shifted around in an attempt to find her a good home. Depressed in her new digs in an African sanctuary and acclimating poorly to the wild and others of her species, she was relegated to Baboon Island in a partial state of captivity.
Lucy was never able to fit in with fellow chimps but still fully trusted humans. That's probably what killed her. Hand-fed by humans, she was easy pickings for poachers. A decade of Doritos and alcohol pilfered from the Temerlin's liquor cabinet--the preferred cuisine of the average Midwestern teenager--had ruined her appetite for leaves and bugs and made her emotionally and physically dependent on humans.
What did science learn from this ordeal? Not much. And exotic pet owners learned even less. Just because you can train an animal to drink gin and wear cowboy hats doesn't mean you should. Ph.Ds are no less immune to the corrupting influence of movies than anyone else. If the rose-tinted comedy that encouraged this warped experiment was halfway truthful, it would have been shot like a horror movie. Chimps aren't pets nor surrogate children, and they have been known to tear people's faces off over the most insignificant slights. Seeing primates as nothing more than half-evolved humans that can and should be rehabilitated into enjoying porn and bacon is a mindset we ought to leave in the '50s with Ronald Reagan's high-waisted pleated pants. God knows we've taught those poor animals enough bad habits already.
Top Image: Universal Pictures