Judge William Lee doesn't want to buy a monkey.
He's on a mission to save the chimpanzees.
Set on a 1,000-hectare South African game reserve is Chimp Eden. Opened in 2006 as a partnership between the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and the Cussons family, the Chimp Eden sanctuary is where rescued chimpanzees are brought for rehabilitation with the ultimate goal being their return to the wild. The show's human star is Eugene Cussons, managing director of Chimp Eden and the rescue director of JGI South Africa.
Facts of the Case
Escape to Chimp Eden: Season One is a two-disc set containing 12 half-hour episodes of the Animal Planet reality series. The show hits the ground running in the first episode as we follow Eugene on a mission to rescue a chimp from Angola where her owners are threatening to euthanize their former pet. In the middle of preparing that chimp's relocation, Eugene comes across two more baby chimps kept in a small cage in someone's backyard. He explains that they rescue chimps that have been abandoned, abused, malnourished and sometimes left addicted to alcohol. It's heartbreaking to realize this sort of mistreatment is a common fact in his experience. If he can't negotiate the surrender of the animal from its owner, Eugene seizes them with the assistance of the local authorities.
With the rescue and relocation accomplished, there's still a lot of work to be done at the sanctuary before these chimps start to display natural behavior. The bulk of the episodes document Eugene's interaction with the different residents at Chimp Eden. With the youngest ones, he will teach them how to climb trees. The adults will be encouraged to socialize and fend for themselves but Eugene still needs to maintain his position in their hierarchy. When they are ready, the rehabilitated chimps will be released back into the wild but that goal is still years away for these scarred animals.
Eugene Cussons has the strong personality required to headline a reality show, but he doesn't rub viewers' noses in his credentials or recite his backstory for effect. Aside from his brief bio at the start of each episode, Eugene's personal history only comes in small details throughout the course of the series. Those looking for the short version will find concise details on Eugene on the Animal Planet website. Born in the Mpumalanga region of South Africa, Eugene continues his family's generations-long involvement with the wildlife conservation movement. Watching him in action, he certainly knows the territory and is a capable handler of wild animals. Undue risk is not a part of his method as Eugene is always careful to preserve both his safety and that of his chimps. He is so focused when dealing with the chimps that you get the feeling this is how he'd operate whether or not a camera crew was present. For a reality TV star, Eugene isn't tripping over his own ego but he certainly seems confident and professional. At first, his personality might feel a bit cool to viewers, but that impression passes fairly quickly. It also helps that what he does is so interesting.
We meet a number of chimps getting the rehab treatment at Chimp Eden. Due to the limited time that we can spend with each of them, many of the chimps will seem anonymous to casual viewers. However, there are a few recurring characters that we get to know such as the alpha male Jao and the mischievous Cozi. A lot of the activity around the sanctuary feels routine, but, more often than not, it's both fascinating and tense. Remember that these are mistreated animals learning their natural behaviors again. Even under these controlled conditions, these chimps can be unpredictable and potentially deadly.
Animal lovers, especially those interested in chimp behavior, will enjoy Eugene's interactions with the animals on the sanctuary. It's really hard to get over how uncannily human they seem sometimes. Among other traits, chimps understand tools and they recognize firearms. In Episode Three, Eugene is forced to use pepper spray on Jao to save himself from harm. Watching Jao's subsequent behavior and expressions, I'm sure he's capable of holding a grudge as well as forgiving Eugene's aggression.
A few rescue excursions take Eugene outside of the sanctuary and these segments are eye-openers. Traveling through poverty-stricken towns, dense marketplaces and war-torn territories the danger level is heightened. There are no graphic images but the evidence of mistreated animals and the "bush meat" trade might upset younger and more sensitive viewers.
Escape to Chimp Eden: Season One has been given a respectable DVD transfer. Colors are consistently warm and accurate. The hand-held camerawork captures good angles and a decent level of detail though the focus is a bit slow to lock in at times. There is a small amount of grain throughout the picture and it's most noticeable in darker parts of the frame. Digital artifacts can be seen on occasional shots where dense jungle foliage dominates the background. The stereo audio is fine and I found the music was a nice complement to the visuals rather than an overpowering element.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, this two-disc set is devoid of extras and some background information would have been useful for filling in the details of Eugene's work. In the episodes we're running alongside Eugene as he's in the thick of it. Consequently he never has the opportunity to detail the cultural climate we're already knee-deep within. It isn't clear if the chimpanzee trade is outright illegal in these places. How does mainstream society view his work? Perhaps they see it as humane and right; or perhaps Eugene is viewed as a meddler? I'm also curious if Chimp Eden is funded solely from the Cussons family fortune or through other means? They do important work and I want to know more of the nitty-gritty of how it's done.
Escape to Chimp Eden throws some dirty reality on animal shows, but nature lovers and chimp enthusiasts will appreciate the work of Eugene Cussons and his crew. Seeing them help these damaged chimps regain some of their wild dignity restores a few points for humanity's side.
Not guilty. Set them free.
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