Greetings cards, photoshoots, TV adverts and movies: these are just some of the places where we may see chimpanzees in the media. It’s charming, isn’t it? To see a chimp dressed in a suit and tie, tapping away at a computer in an office with a big grin on its face.
However, behind the smile is a serious issue of illegal trade and damage to conservation efforts. It is fortunate that the use of chimpanzees in the media has declined over the years, but some companies are still taking advantage of these primates for their own gain.
Let’s take a look at the damage that this kind of activity can cause.
Firstly, we need to address the above images. You may notice that you have only ever seen the face on the left in the media, whilst the grey-faced chimpanzees never make the cut. There is a good reason for this. The pale faced chimp is an infant.
Now that has sunken in, I’ll unpack the issue. Like humans, chimpanzee juveniles spend a longer period with their mothers, usually around 10-13 years until they are sexually mature. Young chimps are born with pale brown faces, which fade to a grey colour with age. Mature chimps are too strong and aggressive to work with, so the juveniles are taken illegally from the wild to be used in the media. An obvious impact of this is that they lose the influence of other chimpanzees in learning many key skills such as playing, socialising, grooming and foraging. If the juveniles make it back into the wild, or to a sanctuary group, their chances of survival are low if left to their own devices.
Research has also shown that many primates experience trauma when taken from their mothers at a young age, and chimps are no exception. The process of extraction is never smooth, with around 10 chimpanzees being killed by traders per 1 juvenile taken; this further adds to the trauma of the infant and is massively contributing to the endangered status of wild chimpanzee populations.
If the juvenile survives the journey into the entertainment industry, it is then taught a series of actions and facial expressions which are commonly used in advertisements or photoshoots. The issue here is that many human behaviours which are taught to the chimps do not transfer the same message in a wild setting. The most obvious example is “smiling”.
While this expression appeals to humans, it conveys a different message to wild chimpanzees. The bearing of teeth in such a manner is associated with nervous feeling or fear and may communicate to a group that there is some kind of danger present. You can imagine the impact of this, if a media-chimp made it back into a wild group.
As well as affecting chimpanzee behaviour, the media representation of chimps also influences human behaviour in a way which is harmful to conservation efforts. A study lead by Kara Schroepfer demonstrated that participants were less likely to donate to conservation charities after watching an amusing advert featuring a chimpanzee, compared to a conservation advert or neutral footage of chimpanzees in the wild. This demonstrates the harm that chimps in the media can inflict on the hard work of conservationists; as the more chimps there are in the media, the less people care about them in the wild.
So, what can we do about this issue?
The most obvious thing to do is to stop consuming and supporting media which uses chimpanzees. There are a couple of ways to do this effectively.
Firstly, you can become a conscientious consumer and boycott companies which still use chimpanzees in their advertising. If you see a chimpanzee being used in advertising, write to the company and urge them to withdraw these adverts, and from using chimpanzees (or any wild animals) in the future. You can find a list of companies who continue to use chimpanzees in their advertising at chimpcare.org.
Secondly, you can be conscious on social media. It is common for videos of wild animals to go viral on social media. Before sharing these videos, stop to think about the impact of your share. Is the animal acting in a natural way? If not, do not share the post. Use your platform to educate others on the harm of using chimpanzees and other captive animals in advertising. If you still want to share photos of chimpanzees (and who doesn’t? They are amazing creatures), share research and conservation resources to further educate people. Surely there is more enjoyment in seeing an image of a chimp in its natural habitat, rather than dressed in human clothes and sat at a desk?
By boycotting companies and spreading awareness, we can make huge changes for chimpanzee populations. In July 2020, PETA published an article stating that “There are no more chimps in Hollywood”, so progress is being made. But we have so much further to go. If you would like to learn more about chimpanzee behaviour and conservation, click the following link to the Jane Goodall Foundation.
About the author: Megan Huntley is a Social Media Assistant for WILD. She’s also an Environmental Geography Student at the University of York and can be found at @megs_huntley on Instagram.