Twice Emmy-nominated actress, singer and fitness guru Charlotte Ross has starred in over 12 Prime Time television series. She is most known for her regular starring roles on Daytime and Prime Time shows like Days of Our Lives and NYPD Blue and Glee.
On the Big Screen, Charlotte has starred along side Nicholas Cage and Ray Liotta.
But the actress—a lifelong animal welfarist and animal rights activist, is also famous for her passionate dedication to wild animals, including primates.
As an activist for companion animals and wildlife in general, Charlotte has been featured in PETA‘s, perhaps edgy, renowned and uber-popular, anti-fur campaigns and has appeared in numerous PSA’s for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) promoting the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act.
Charlotte was awarded the HSUS ‘s Animal Advocate of the Year Award for 2012.
Charlotte is scheduled to portray Belgian primate conservationist Claudine André—the Jane Goodall of bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) and founder of the Congo’s Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary.
The actress is also working on a documentary about the homeless dogs of Puerto Rico, a film, which will be dedicated to “Taco”–one of her canine companions pictured here. Charlotte has rescued many dogs living free on the Island over the years. Most notable is “Taco”—who lived with her for 17 years before recently passing away. Charlotte is also heavily involved with local county and city animal shelters in Southern California.
Today, the great ape aficionado and advocate specifically campaigns and lobbies on behalf of our closest relatives—chimpanzees, which have historically suffered physical and psychological trauma in captivity as subjects of invasive biomedical research in laboratories worldwide.
Although recent efforts have been made to retire many chimpanzees subjected to laboratory research in the US, the federal government plans to still maintain some chimpanzees at NIH laboratories. Currently, there are approximately 400 chimpanzees in non-federal laboratories around the country.
Charlotte discussed the plight of non-human primates in research laboratories in a documentary I recently reviewed for Nat Geo. It was clear based on her role advocating for primates in Give Me Shelter, produced by Katie Cleary and Kristen Rizzo, that Charlotte was not only well-versed on the tragic lives of these sentient great apes, but is poised to serve as a celebrity ambassador for these simians that are so often regarded as surprisingly “almost human” by the general public.
At a recent screening for Give Me Shelter, Charlotte and I spoke of some pressing concerns for both captive chimpanzees and their wild counterparts in regard to animal welfare, rescue and conservation. Ms. Ross graciously agreed to share with our audience some of her recent efforts campaigning on behalf of voiceless great apes.
Jordan: You advocate on behalf of many species, including both companion animals and wild animals. How did you become such an advocate for the great apes and chimpanzees and bonobos in particular? What are your thoughts about great apes displayed in zoos?
Charlotte: I’m very torn when it comes to having great apes displayed in zoos. Truthfully, I feel that they should ALL be living in the wild in safe areas where poaching is outlawed but, obviously, my wish is very rare to be true. That being said, I do believe that zoos can be a vital educating tool for kids and adults IF, and it’s a big if, the zoos’ environment are well made and as close to [their natural habitat] as possible with an abundance of social and intellectual stimulation provided.
Years ago, most zoos kept primates in semi-barren small enclosures which I think should be outlawed, to be honest. But, if primates are in a well run, beautifully maintained setting where the vets are learning about them and giving them medical care and enrichment tools and games, I think that the younger human generation can see the true magnificence that these animals embody and, hopefully, become conservationists and activists themselves.
Being a primate in the wild isn’t always an easy life anymore, that’s for sure. With human encroachment and poaching at an all- time high, it’s a world of fear and death more often so for these animals. Obviously, there are pluses and minuses to both situations. Again, ideally, free in the wild where there are no human predators would be my dream, but on the same note, one of the reasons I became so involved in activism for primate conservation was not just from the books and movie’s I saw, but from looking into the eyes of a chimpanzee in a zoo. I’ll never forget it.. it changed my life.
Jordan: You have lobbied for the placement of great apes in “retirement” sanctuaries. Why is this so important to you and what do you know about the history of chimpanzees in laboratory research in regard to their welfare. Some people think that chimpanzees have only been subjected to behavioral research studies in recent years, but in reality they have been subjects of invasive biomedical research up until recent legislation had been passed. Can you tell us about the The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act? Can you tell us about what sanctuary life will be like for these former subjects of invasive research? Have you visited any of these sanctuaries?
Charlotte: I was lucky enough to get the chance to go to Washington DC and help lobby for the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act. I was the “celebrity” arm, I suppose. It was such an honor to be a part of something I am so passionate about. It was on behalf of the Humane Society of the United Sates and I was also on a panel with some of the most extraordinary group of primatologists and owners of retirement sanctuaries for the chimpanzee, etc. Many of them are dear friends of mine now and I’m currently working with two of them.
One is Brian Hare, a primatology professor at Duke University. Brian is such an awesome advocate for chimps retiring from medical labs because he once started in a lab himself! He was a well-meaning chimpanzee lover and had no idea what he was going to encounter. They [had] 5x5x7 cages to live in, no intellectual stimulation, no contact with other chimps, etc. The sadness, anger and atrocities he saw these chimps in medical labs going through. It changed his life and career and he now has many published works and gives talks all over the world about releasing chimps from biomedical labs into retirement sanctuaries. It was through him that I learned about Claudine André and the magnificent bonobo.
I will be traveling with Brian and some of his students to the Congo to Claudine’s sanctuary, Lola ya Bonobo in January, 2014.
I also met the former head of Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest, Sarah Baeckler, JD (now run by Jennifer Whitaker formally from Chimp Haven). She has a sanctuary of retired chimpanzees from labs in Cle Elum, Washington. I’ve since visited there numerous times, hosted fundraisers for them and know each of the chimps that live there very well.
The one male, “Burrito,” is my “boyfriend” as he is a huge, playful flirt. Always running up and down the fence with me playing chase or catch, etc. And, then there is “Jamie,” the leader, who didn’t like me at first until I allowed her to smell my shoe. Once she agreed to “let me in the group,” she would spit on me from time to time to show how much he cares- lol! Then there is “Foxy” who had twins while in captivity. They would take the chimpanzees’ babies away from them within the first few days which is tragic and torture for both the mother and child(ren). Foxy has a need to parlay her mothering instincts by always carrying around a troll doll. In her mouth, under her arm, on her back and grooms it, etc. It’s her comfort zone to always have a troll doll with her.
Most of these chimps, and rescued/retired chimps like them, were caged and tested on, prodded and studied for 20- 30 years or more and were fed this plain, tasteless dry food food called chow. At the sanctuaries, they get real food like onions, carrots, peppers, bananas. They get to play with each other, feel sun on their face, feel out their natural hierarchy within the chimpanzee groups, play, etc. It’s a beautiful thing to see. You can watch a video of them leaving their cages for the first time at http://www.chimpsanctuarynw.org. It will bring tears to your eyes.
We are the ONLY industrialized country in the world that still thinks testing on chimps is useful. It’s an archaic model that the medical community has finally spoken out about. Scientists have finally admitted that chimps are simply, not the correct genetic model for Hepatitis B and C and HIV. They are too magnificent, intelligent and human-like to keep in these barbaric situations anymore and it costs tax payer 1/4 the amount to relinquish them to sanctuaries yet more than 400 are still languishing in medical labs around the country. We have to get them into sanctuaries and fast. Many are dying as we speak of because of old age and many suffer from depression. No one deserves to retire more than these amazing creatures… and it’s way overdue.
Jordan: Most people think that because chimpanzees are so commonly seen in the media and particularly in entertainment and other venues outside of nature and their natural habitat that they are common and far from extinct. Can you talk about this?
Charlotte: The chimpanzee should be put on the Endangered list ASAP! It’s overdue.. And, unfortunately, that it’s NOT is very confusing and misleading to the average United States citizen when they watch TV or films that display them. Of course, we would ALL love to have a baby chimp at home to cuddle with, bottle feed and play with. Who wouldn’t? These films make you want to go out and get one ASAP. But, that’s not realistic, and ultimately an extremely selfish thing to do and puts everyone in their family and surrounding community at risk as the years progress. Simply put, chimps are wild animals that have aggression as part of their normal healthy behavior and they are a time bomb in a well-meaning loving home. And, they ARE, factually, endangered so, it’s unfair to show them in films as pets as well because it makes people think that it’s OK to have them in your home.
My “boyfriend” at the Chimp Sanctuary North West, “Burrito”– is actually, a retired chimp from “acting” in movies and in photo shoots. He ended up at this sanctuary because, after he was no longer needed to “perform”, they had no use for him. I’m working passionately with many organizations to help people understand that putting chimps on the Endangered Species list would slow down or, hopefully, stop their use in frivolous on-screen projects and help raise more awareness about how much these extraordinary creatures need to be protected as they are dwindling at an alarming rate worldwide.
Jordan: You may be going to the Congo next year to visit the famed bonobo sanctuary. Bonobos are close relatives of chimpanzees. Although physically, they appear to be very similar species, their sociobiology is quite distinct. What can you tell us about bonobos compared to chimpanzees?
Charlotte: Yes, I am VERY excited about my upcoming visit to Lola la Bonobo in the DRC in January 2014! I almost went last year but, my schedule didn’t allow it—although, I DID go to Tanzania a few months ago and climbed Kilimanjaro, which was beyond life changing and incredible!
When I spoke on Capitol Hill, I considered myself fairly well-versed when it came to chimpanzees, their characteristics, habits, need to be relinquished from biomedical research, etc., but, knew NOTHING about the bonobo! Nothing…
I think very few people know about the bonobo as well, which now that I’ve learned so much about them, astounds me. It’s understandable, though, because they are only found in a semi-small region of the war-torn country of the Congo. The gruesome war, genocide and atrocities that have occurred there, haven’t allowed many Americans to want or need to study in that region. Claudine is from Belgium—so it’s closer, more accessible, same language (French), etc.
Claudine moved there when she was three years old with her veterinarian father and has never left. She fell in love with the Congolese people and when the war broke out in the early 90’s she started volunteering at the local Zoo in Kinshasa. The animals were being neglected, not fed or even poached as the lack of food was so severe for the people. It was there she learned about and fell in love with the bonobo. During and now since the war, poaching is at an all-time high and after they kill the mothers for their meat, they leave the orphaned bonobos to die.
When Claudine rescues them, many die anyway because they are so emotionally depressed about losing their mother (and father) that they simply lose their will to live. You see, I didn’t know this, but bonobos are EQUAL to chimpanzees in almost EVERY way. They have 2% less brain capacity than humans—just like the chimps. But, because they are only in the Congo, they are not as widely known. One of the things I find so fascinating, is that human nature is quite split between compassionate love and hateful aggression.
And, as much as I LOVE the chimpanzee, it can’t go unnoticed that their way of life and hierarchy is based on violent fighting to climb the ranks. The leader is always a male and that male has to beat up females, starting with his mother to help them gain power and respect. The bonobo is the opposite. The females run the hierarchy and control all the power.
And, everything is solved with tenderness, compassion and sex… a lot of sex! They engage in sex so often that it’s commonly referred to as a handshake. It calms nerves when there is unrest, before they eat if they are too excited and, simply, to calm any building resentment that may occur. They also do not discriminate, meaning that they have male with male interactions, female with female, young with old, etc. So, it’s fascinating to debate, which is better. Is sex and compassion so taboo that it makes us uncomfortable to think about it and [consider if] war and displays of strength and aggression are a better solution?
Claudine’s Sanctuary has women who take care of and nurture these rescued orphaned bonobos as they need to stay with their mothers for the first 5 years of their life. But, Claudine has done something else extraordinary and that is she has found a way to train them and prepare them to be re introduced into the wild. Way out in the deep jungle where no cars or planes can go and only canoeing/rafting for many days can make the [remote area accessible].
But, like the chimp, the bonobos are on the endangered list and because they are lesser known, I’m trying to bring more awareness to the work that Claudine André is doing and to the bonobo, in general.
These beautiful, sweet, peace-loving and sometimes referred to as the “hippie” primate, need all the help they can get. For more information on Claudine’s sanctuary in the DRC and how you can help, go to http://www.friendsofthebonobos.org.
Jordan: What are the threats to the conservation of these endangered species?
Charlotte: The main threats for both chimpanzees and bonobos are mainly human encroachment and the poaching that comes along with that. Chimps need to be on the Endangered list; we need to stop making them look like glorified pets in ads and films and do everything we can to try and stop China from wanting to smuggle these babies in to their country. They think that if a human baby takes a bath with a bonobo’s finger in it, it will always be safe and protected. There needs to be stronger laws and enforcement of poaching for both the chimp and bonobo.
Jordan: What can we do to help them in terms of their welfare provisions in captivity and their conservation in the wild? If all captive chimps around the world are successfully retired to sanctuaries, what might you endeavor to do to continue to help primates or other wildlife species.
Charlotte: If my dream becomes a reality and all chimps get to live out their days in peaceful, loving sanctuaries then I will make my focus on helping the chimps, gorillas and bonobos try and get OFF the endangered list and do everything in my power to help eradicate poaching and help further educate people about these amazing animals that have the basic right to live and be seen for many more generations to come. If we don’t get aggressive to help them more as we speak, they, simply, won’t be around anymore. For more information, you can also go to http://www.janegoodall.org and http://www.bushmeat.org/.