Los Angeles pet lovers.
By Nora Fraser
Richard Pryor probably didn't have a lot of pets growing up in a whorehouse in Peoria, Illinois. That's a luxury he could afford only after he started earning money making people laugh. You'd think a career that garners 5 Grammy awards, an Emmy Award-winning TV series and 45 movies might be enough for someone, but now Pryor's got another fight in him- drawing attention to animal abuse.
Richard Pryor has multiple sclerosis, but he is so adamantly opposed to the use of animals in researching disease that he used his Christmas card last year to discourage donations to charities that still fund such tests. He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. And last year, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster something to think about.
"While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living," Pryor wrote in a letter to Jonathan Lee Iverson, "I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."
Pryor, who compares the treatment of elephants in circuses to slavery, hopes Iverson will ask Ringling Bros. to retire all of its elephants.
Richard Pryor, "animal activist", is a relatively recent phenomenon, but not an entirely unlikely one. Pryor, famous for his fearless style of comedy as well as his proclivity for self-destruction, has always been an animal lover.
Jennifer Lee, whom he recently married for the second time, remembers the animals he kept at his ranch in Northridge when she first knew him. "He had a miniature pony named Ginger, a great Dane, and a couple of monkeys."
According to Lee, Pryor always stressed kindness to animals to his children.
"If the girls (Pryor's daughters) ever mistreated their puppies, as kids will do innocently, Richard would sit them down and say "These animals have to be loved. Don't treat the animals badly. They're not treating you badly."
"I've always liked animals" Richard proclaims on his CD about the '70's and '80's. "That Nigger is Still Crazy"
"I've got a dog that just showed up one day. He was a stray. He said 'Hey, I got no place to go. I heard you had a couple bucks.'".
Pryor elaborates on the advantages of adopting a stray.
"He's a great watchdog. He's fun. But he doesn't leave the driveway. He'll chase someone but he'll stop at the property line. He says 'I ain't going anywhere. I been out there. I ain't going back. You want that ball, you go get it!'"
Pryor's routines have always been sprinkled with animal themes and usually he acts as a translator or an interpreter for the animals.
Jennifer and Richard's adventures in Africa became the basis for one hilarious routine comparing zoos to an African Safari. ("Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip")
"It's something to drive around and see all these animals in person! Because at the zoo, they're bullshitting us at the zoo. We all go to the zoo to f*ck with the lion. 'Hey lion! Hey motherf%ck^r!' The lion can't get out. But when you see a pride of lions hanging out for real, with attitude… the lion will look at you - 'Get your ass out of the car, and bring the camera too. Because we're gonna eat all that shit."
Jennifer swears that while they were on safari, Richard did get out of the car to get a closer look at the lions on the Masai Mara. Evidently Pryor was so elated at being in Africa and so excited about seeing real lions that he lost himself and didn't realize he wasn't at the zoo.
"He just thought he'd get closer!" Jennifer remembers. "Later, back at the reserve, we got in trouble. You're not supposed to do that. No,no, no."
The Pryors had a flat tire while on the game reserve.
"Richard has only changed his clothes, his mind, never a flat tire. He was going to try to do it."
He told Jennifer to watch the gazelles and if one of them flinched that would mean there was a lion around. Her job was to keep an eye on the flock while he changed the tire.
"It was a pretty good strategy, now that I think of it".
Jennifer says Pryor has always had this connection with animals.
"He really enjoyed watching the lions eating the wildebeest. We saw it killed. I had a hard time with that. He liked it." Jennifer compares Richard on stage to a "lion on coke." "He stalked the stage like a wild animal. He was very predatory on that stage. Stalking his humor, stalking his audience, stalking his routine. He was very, very predatory. That's what I fell in love with. That magnetism, that charisma. I fell in love with his vulnerability and his tenderness - the complexities of Richard - layers and layers."
The latest "layer" is Richard's crusade against Burger King called "Murder King". He and long time PETA member, Alec Baldwin, sent letters asking owners of Burger King franchises to use their clout to get the fast-food corporation to meet or exceed the animal welfare standards set last year by its chief competitor, McDonald's. This would involve refusing to purchase from suppliers that skin and dismember conscious animals, chop the beaks off of hens, and starve hens for up to two weeks in order to shock the animals' bodies into another laying cycle. The campaign is evidently making headway.
Pryor, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986, subsequently suffered a heart attack and had a quadruple bypass the following year. After years of battling MS he now travels in a wheelchair and needs regular physical therapy and speech therapy. In light of all this, it surprises many that he continues to crusade against animal testing.
Fellow multiple sclerosis sufferer Montel Williams agrees with Richard. "They've been trying to test on animals for the past 50 years. Nobody's come up with a cure." he says. "If you want to test on somebody, test on me."
Montel is critical of wasted years and resources spent on animal tests that have led nowhere. "With all the technology we have we can reach the whole planet at the same time but we can't figure out how to cure a disease by poking people rather than poking animals? I don't get it."
Pryor and Williams both urge everyone to support the charities that focus on prevention and patient services and that use modern research methods, such as human clinical trials and in vitro tests.
While Montel Williams is able to use his voice to let his opinions be known, Richard has to voice his opinions in other ways- such as with that Christmas card he sent last year. Picturing a monkey, mice and other animals running to freedom from a laboratory cage, the message read, "May your heart leap with joy this holiday! And if the season finds you sharing your good fortune with others, please don't give to charities that fund experiments on animals. A gift of goodwill should help end suffering, not cause it."
Cognizant of the fact that most people have no idea that their donations may be used to bankroll animal tests, Richard urges everyone to contact PETA (or visit www.peta.com) for lists of charities that are "naughty" and "nice."
Jennifer doesn't like the way some people respond to Richard's illness. "When people say to me, 'oh, how sad it is,' I really get angry. Because you know 'sad' is six feet under. His life has changed."
"If you're an intelligent being and you're in a position where you are stagnant, basically, it becomes a time for introspection."
Jennifer believes that it is this introspection that has sparked Pryor's interest in animal rights.
"Richard knows that as a man of color, he is really important to the animal rights movement because it has not been a popular belief system in the African American culture."
"He values the world and life now in ways that he didn't before. And I think it's fantastic he's still alive because as a human being he can reflect at times and that can't be easy. But his life does have purpose and he knows that."
Recently Pryor went to a birthday party for his granddaughter, Lillie Sarah with a large stuffed animal in tow.
"When I saw him with the big stuffed Bengal tiger he had brought for her and the kids all around him, it gave me goose bumps. Do you think he would have done that at the height of his stardom? No! Or been able to have that moment and hold that moment? His eyes showed what that meant to him."
Richard has a different relationship with his dogs these days. Two large "rescue" mutts, Homer and Spirit, preside over his household. "Spirit was brought to us by Rain (Richard's daughter) who found in him front of Turner Liquors on Sunset, and Homer was a rescue brought to us by a former employee," says Jennifer. "Homer, three, is a big hound and Spirit, four, is an Australian sheltie/shepherd mix. Even though he can't participate in the day to day care, ie the walks, Richard has an interaction with them that is very sweet and very gentle. They're very gentle with him. Because his physical condition requires it."
"Richard is comforted in a profound way by animals around him but I think he feels very safe, also. To know there's this patrol going on outside the house. A constant patrol. It's their home and they are very protective. And it is Richard Pryor, after all, and so we have to keep him safe. I feel like I'm taking care of a national treasure. There's the man over here and the national treasure over there. I've got to take care of both."
Richard Pryor may not be up to keeping us in stitches these days, but he's still being a formidable influence. Research shows that laughter and insight are strong components of a happy and healthy life. Richard Pryor, in his lifetime, has given us both.
(Currently available at Tower Records and Amazon.com is a CD box set, (1968-1992 - 9 CDS!) Richard Pryor... And It's Deep, Too! Coming soon is a new two CD anthology, some with a bobbing head doll of Richard.)
(Emmy-award winning producer and television commentator, Nora Fraser, is an animal lover who serves on the Board of Directors of the Ark Trust. In her spare time, she develops shows for television.)
First published in August of 1999, The Pet Press has become THE only local resource for
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