Chimps on TV may be sending wrong message

A new study says seeing chimpanzees on TV and in entertainment, such as in this photo with a chimp and Natalie Portman, may harm their endangered status.
A new study says seeing chimpanzees on TV and in entertainment, such as in this photo with a chimp and Natalie Portman, may harm their endangered status.Getty Images
/ Source: Discovery Channel

For years, advocacy groups have protested the use of chimps in entertainment because of worries about their safety and welfare. But, now, there may be another unexpected reason to be concerned about the use of chimpanzees for entertainment.

Seeing the primate in television shows, movies, advertisements and greeting cards may actually undermine their conservation status, a new study says. The exposure makes people less likely to believe that chimps are actually endangered. People are also more likely to think that the animals would make good pets. Even images used by researchers, zoos and sanctuaries may unintentionally send the wrong message.

In 2008, Steve Ross, a behaviorist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and director of ChimpCare, a scientific initiative to improve the well-being of privately owned chimpanzees, published a study in Science, which found that people were less likely to think that chimpanzees were endangered compared to other ape species and that this was because they more often saw chimps in movies, TV shows and advertisements.

To figure out what it was about those media portrayals that affected people's attitudes, the new study began with a stock image of an adolescent chimpanzee standing on two feet against a blank background. Using Photoshop, the researchers altered the image in a variety of ways. In some images, the chimp was wearing a shirt, for example, or standing next to a person. The background ranged from a jungle setting to an office to a zoo.

The researchers were surprised to find that seeing a chimp wearing clothes had no influence on how people answered the questions, according to the study, just published in the journal PLoS One.

More than 1,200 people participated in the study. After seeing one of 48 possible images, they answered a survey, which included questions about the conservation status of chimpanzees and the appeal of chimps as potential pets.

Close to 40 percent of people who saw a chimp standing next to a man expressed the belief that chimp populations were stable in the wild, compared to just over 25 percent of people who saw a chimp standing alone. In other words, simply seeing a chimp in proximity to a person made people 35 percent less likely to think of chimpanzees as endangered. Seeing chimps in offices had a similar impact.

Likewise, viewing a chimp standing next to a person made people 30 percent more likely to think that chimps would make good pets.

"This study demonstrates the unfortunate reality that using chimpanzees for cheap comic relief on television means we pay a high price in terms of what the public understands about their endangered status in the wild," said Duke University primatologist Brian Hare. "If we are serious about having chimpanzees survive in the wild, we can no longer look at the media's use of chimpanzees this way as a joke."

It's not just the media that needs to take notice, and chimpanzees may not be the only victims, Stoinski said. Zoos, conservation groups and sanctuaries often show experts interacting with the endangered animals they care for, and the new work suggests that those images might actually undermine their own efforts.

Chimpanzees have long been a source of fascination for people. They share more than 95 percent of our genes. Their facial expressions and physical movements often seem uncannily human-like. This year alone, there have been several ad campaigns and films that use chimps to entertain. One of the latest projects, the film "Project Nim," depicts the trials one chimp goes through after being born in a research facility and then handed off from family to family as a pet and then finally, again, to another research facility.

"This (study) just adds to arguments against using chimpanzees in entertainment," said Ross. "If people don't think chimpanzees are endangered, I can't see why they would give to conservation organizations that give to chimpanzees."

Under the Endangered Species Act, chimpanzees have something of a split personality, said Tara Stoinski, a primatologist with Zoo Atlanta and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. In the wild, chimps are considered endangered.

But captive chimps are unlisted, making them relatively easy to sell as pets or for use in the media. That's why you are far more likely to see chimps rather than gorillas or orangutans in commercials, such as the notorious Super Bowl ads by CareerBuilder. More than 100 chimps currently live with people as pets or perform in the entertainment industry around the United States.