Channel 5 will air a one-off documentary revealing how Twycross Zoo is rehabilitating apes used in PG Tips adverts.

For almost 20 years, the PG Tips apes promoted tea bags and made the brand the most well-known tea brand in the UK.

The documentary, The Secrets of the Tea Chimps, features never seen before footage of the chimpanzees and the women who cared for them, Molly Badham and Nathalie Evans, who founded Twycross Zoo and helped establish it as a World Primate Centre.

The programme includes interviews with former and current staff at Twycross Zoo, and writers and producers of some of the most well-known adverts.  

Twycross Zoo has been in business for more than 50 years, cares for around 150 species of animals and is the only place in the UK to have every type of great ape (gorilla, orang-utan, chimpanzee and bonobo).

Chief executive of Twycross Zoo Sharon Redrobe, who features in the documentary, said: “Molly Badham and Nathalie Evans were fundamental in establishing the principles of early modern management of primates in captivity, in recognising once the infant chimpanzees grew to maturity and a different regime was required, they were able to focus on giving adult chimps a wholesome and stimulating environment away from television cameras.”  

Head of life sciences Charlotte Macdonald, who is also in the programme, added: “It is clear from the documentary how much Molly and Nathalie loved their chimpanzees and Twycross Zoo works incredibly hard to maintain their legacy in its care and management of this species.

“Choppers, which features in the documentary, is one of the zoos remaining chimpanzees from the ‘tea chimps’ adverts. She has received dedicated training to ensure her integration into a natural chimp group structure, following retirement from television.”  

However, animal welfare campaigners argue the apes were not trained for the wild and insist it is a breech of animal rights. Ian Redmond OBE chairs the Ape Alliance – a coalition of organisations and individuals that work for the welfare of the endangered animals. He believes the use of real life chimps in advertising can perpetuate the problem they face in the wild. Mr Redmond is also known for introducing Sir David Attenborough to gorillas.

He said: “The wonder and curiosity of chimpanzees can lead to the commodification of them – apes make money. Adverts and films perpetuate this belief and filmmakers need to consider the consequences of their actions.”

Choppers the chimpanzee is the last surviving star of the television adverts.

At the age of 42, she has just started partaking in grooming sessions – an important ape behaviour. Ms Redrobe added: “It’s not a good start in life to be treated like a human because they don’t learn ape behaviour and are not very good at being with other chimps.  

“[Chimps are] fascinating creatures, but people have to appreciate they’re amazing in their own enclosure rather than being dressed up.”

The Secrets of the Tea Chimps airs tonight (January 13) on Channel 5 at 8pm.

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