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Auburn trainer punched “Speed Racer” chimp, PETA claims

Local client says Lille kind to his apes, raises funds for them
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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PETA is going bananas over a punch allegedly thrown by Auburn animal trainer Greg Lille on the set of “Speed Racer.” The target, the world’s largest animal rights organization claims, was one of Lille’s trained chimpanzees. Now it wants German authorities to step in and bring possible criminal action. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is maintaining that an American Humane Association film monitor witnessed the trainer “in an uncontrolled impulse, hit the chimpanzee.” Lille’s trained chimpanzees have starred in hockey movie “MVP: Most Valuable Primate” and been featured in “The Right Stuff” and “Made in America.” Reached by phone Monday, he declined to comment on PETA’s accusation that he assaulted the chimpanzee last summer on the “Speed Racer” set. Kristie Phelps, PETA assistant director of animals and entertainment, said Monday that the organization’s German affiliate has filed a formal complaint with prosecutors in that country calling for an investigation and the filing of appropriate animal cruelty charges against Lille. PETA Germany is asserting that the assault was a violation of the German Animal Welfare Act. Lille’s business “Goin’ Ape” provides trained chimps for personal appearances as well as stunts and acting in films and TV. He’s called Auburn home since 1980, sharing space with as many as a dozen chimpanzees after moving with his wife, Carol, from San Luis Obispo County. The two were part of the first hires at the former Marine World in Redwood City. Jim Taylor, whose rural Auburn Mt. Vernon Winery has played host to Lille and his chimps, said he was shocked at the accusations. One of the events held at the winery was a fundraiser to help build a retirement home for older trained chimps. Taylor said he never witnessed hitting or any other form of physical violence by Lille. “I’ve never seen him do anything like that,” Taylor said. “They were always being cuddled in their arms. Why would he be vicious or mean? He’s the only guy I know of trying to raise money for an old folks home for chimps.” The Lille chimpanzee doubled for Chim Chim, a pet that has been part of the “Speed Racer” cast since the days it ran as a television cartoon. PETA is against animals being used in films and is mounting a campaign to convince moviemakers to use animatronic doubles or computer-generated effects. Earlier this month, PETA also placed a full-page ad in entertainment publication Variety calling on Hollywood insiders to report any abuses of animals in the production of movies or TV shows. PETA has been accused by organizations of being on the fringe of the animal rights movement, particularly in its stance against circuses and rodeos. But it does claim 1.8 million members worldwide and has been credited with shining the spotlight on animal abuse and helping to bring about more humane practices. Phelps said that when PETA learned that “Speed Racer” was using live chimps, the organization immediately asked director Joel Silver to switch to alternatives. “I don’t think we’re going against the grain,” Phelps said. “A lot of movies — ‘Godzilla’ and ‘Jurassic Park,’ for example — are made without live animals. We don’t have to cause animals to suffer to get our kicks.” Warner Bros. — the studio that released “Speed Racer” two weeks ago — issued a reply stating that while it appreciates PETA’s concerns, “we also respect the vision and choices of the filmmakers with which we work. Every option on a film is carefully weighed, and for this production, the decision was made to use live animals.” Phelps said PETA also received a report from an insider on the movie that a chimpanzee not belonging to Lille bit actor Paulie Litt on the arm, causing bruising. She said another whistleblower on the set said a chimp had been severely beaten but PETA has not connected that report to Lille and “Goin’ Ape.” The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com.