Fact-Checking Hollywood: Just How Many Apes Live in San Francisco?

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 23 2011 4:28 PM

Fact-Checking The Rise of the Planet of the Apes: How Many Apes Live in San Francisco?

Photograph courtesy of 20th Century Fox.


The Rise of the Planet of the Apes continues to dominate the box office: The sci-fi film about super-smart apes has had some of the biggest domestic grosses of the year, and took second place behind The Help this past weekend.

[Mild spoiler alert.] In the film’s big, climactic set piece, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ape followers gather up all the other apes in San Francisco—from zoos, labs, and a primate shelter—and go rampaging across the Golden Gate Bridge on their way to their new home in Muir Woods. The film makes it look as if there are tons of apes in the city, just waiting to be sprung. But how many apes actually live in San Francisco?


25, by our count.

There are two zoos in the area that house apes: the Oakland Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo. (The primates included in the “apes” category are gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimps, and bonobos.) Oakland has 11 apes; San Francisco has 12. That’s 23 apes that could join Caesar’s parade.

Then there’s Koko the gorilla; the famous signing ape lives with her partner, Ndume, in Woodside, Calif., about 34 miles from Golden Gate Bridge via 280. If there were a mass ape migration to Muir Woods, says Amy Gotliffe, conservation manager at the Oakland Zoo, “I think she’d want to be included.”

In the film, Caesar and his compatriots are kept in a primate shelter in San Bruno, run by an oily Brian Cox and a despotic Draco Malfoy. But there are no ape sanctuaries in the San Francisco area. Nor, as far as we can tell, are there any apes in labs. According to a search of the relevant USDA database, there are 111 non-human primates (which would include both apes and monkeys) living in research institutions in San Francisco County. But none of the experts we spoke with believed that there were apes among that number. (“Unless they’re private pharmaceuticals we don’t know about,” says Theodora Capaldo, executive director of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society.) Entertainment industry apes, meanwhile, are usually found further south, in the Los Angeles area.

What about private owners? It’s actually illegal to keep an ape as a pet in California, which may explain why Will (James Franco) kept Caesar hidden up in that attic for so long. However, you can be granted an exception if you had your ape legally prior to 1992 and get a permit from the California Department of Fish and Game. But according to the department’s Lori Heier, there are no such permittees in San Francisco County.

Thanks also to Debra Durham, Lawrence Hawkins of the USDA/APHIS, Margaret Rousser of the Oakland Zoo, and Vernon Weir of the American Sanctuary Association.



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