Picture Painting Chimp Earns Fame, But Not Freedom

Photo: O Globo

For most of his 27 years, Jimmy the chimpanzee has been kept under lock and key, allowed only to dream of the world beyond the confines of his enclosure at a small zoo in Rio de Janeiro. With no companion and little to do to pass the time, Jimmy had become understandably depressed -- that is, until he discovered the joy of painting. But despite receiving national acclaim for his uncanny artistic ability, and becoming a household name in Brazil, the results of Jimmy's latest bid for a better life may add a little gloom to his palette.

If Jimmy's art leans towards the abstract, it could be for his limited exposure to the beauty of a natural landscape. From birth until age three, the chimpanzee toured with a circus troupe where he endured untold stresses at the hands of people infamously more interested in profits than the humane treatment of their animals. And Jimmy isn't the only one with a difficult past; Several residents at the zoo where Jimmy lives were found abandoned by bankrupt circus owners.

For the last 10 years, Jimmy has lived by himself in an enclosure at the poorly funded Niteroi zoo, in Rio de Janeiro. Despite the economic hardships, his keepers did their best to keep his spirits up offering games, sugary snacks, and even a TV to the chimp -- but none of these things could cure Jimmy's loneliness and depression quite like one particular pastime. Six months ago, his trainer brought him a canvas, a few brushes, and some paints -- allowing Jimmy to discover his love of painting. And, boy, can he paint.

Since then, Jimmy has gone on to produce dozens of paintings that demonstrate an artistic talent rarely seen in primates -- including the human variety. A knack for color and composition is evident in the his abstract pieces, while a look of concentration can be clearly seen in the artist's furrowed brow.

With a bonafide talent in their midst, the zoo decided to help Jimmy hone his craft; an art instructor now visits the chimp three times a week. As word of the artistic animal spread beyond the confines of his pen, Jimmy has become a celebrity of sorts in Brazil, even making an oft-coveted cameo appearance on a popular prime-time soap opera. Exposure on the international stage would shortly follow.

Hoping to cash in on their painting-primate, the zoo may start making Jimmy's art available for sale. For the time being, the zoo plans to display 20 of the chimp's abstract masterpieces.

But with fame, often there's a price to pay. Recently, Jimmy was forced to wear the shirt of a local soccer team as a publicity stunt, for example. Other incidents of exploitation and claims of mistreatment has drawn animal rights groups to the chimpanzee's defense. Several NGOs recently filed a motion of habeas corpus to have Jimmy released into better conditions -- a legal maneuver which has been successfully applied to primates in the past, further blurring the line between human and animal.

Animal advocacy organizations, like the Primate Support Group, argue that chimpanzees are deserving of the same rights as humans, making Jimmy's confinement unlawful. The group points out that humans and chimpanzees share 99 percent of their DNA, yet are typically regarded as wholly unhuman and therefor do not have access to basic liberties. They suggested that Jimmy be transferred to a wildlife sanctuary where he would be free to live more as nature intended.

Sadly, the appeal for a better life for Jimmy was denied by a judge, citing uncertainty as to whether the animal was suffering mistreatment at his current home. The zoo administration celebrated the news that their star attraction would be around a bit longer -- even suggesting to Brazilian media that they would soon find him a mate, but it will be a challenge. "It is difficult at his age [to find a female]," concedes the zoo's director.

The matter of Jimmy's release under habeas corpus is open to appeal, says the court. For the time being, however, Jimmy will have to wait in the cold confines of his enclosure, alone but for those paints -- and that remarkable ability to turn them into a works of harrowing beauty on the surface of a clean, white canvas.

Although, perhaps in those quiet moments with a brush in hand, Jimmy the artist is already free.

More on the Rights of Chimpanzees
When This Happens To Humans It's Called Genocide
Are Zoos Prisons? Habeas Corpus Filed for Chimp
Chimpanzees Feel Death Like People

Tags: Animals | Artists | Brazil