Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees

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Science  14 Mar 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5869, pp. 1487
DOI: 10.1126/science.1154490

In North America alone, about 2300 chimpanzees live in a variety of settings from accredited zoological parks to laboratories and sanctuaries. However, in 44 of the 50 states in America, chimpanzees can also be privately owned as pets and/or used as actors and photographer's props in the entertainment and media industry (1). In movies, television shows, and advertisements, chimpanzees are often depicted as caricatures of humans, dressed in clothes and/or photographed in contrived poses. For example, chimpanzees are portrayed as misbehaving business executives in the popular Careerbuilder advertisements. More recently, chimpanzees were shown dressed in hats while reading an issue of Science magazine in a promotional campaign by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (although, it should be noted that the campaign was halted when AAAS was made aware of objections). Such inappropriate portrayals are viewed by millions of people annually and may influence the way in which members of the general public perceive this endangered great ape.


In 2005, a survey (see the table, left side) was conducted at the Regenstein Center for African Apes (RCAA) at the Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago, IL). The full survey was made up of 56 questions with the intent of assessing the effect of a new facility on visitor knowledge and attitudes toward apes (2). The final question of the survey asked respondents to select which of three great ape species (chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) were considered endangered in the wild. Labeled photographs were used to ensure that species identification was correct, and the order of the species list was randomized. Of those choices, 95 of respondents thought gorillas were endangered, 91 thought orangutans were endangered, but only 66 believed chimpanzees to be endangered. This species-level difference was significant by a two-way 2 analysis for chimpanzees versus gorillas (CvG), = 37.726, df = 1, P < 0.001; for chimpanzees versus orangutans (CvO), = 22.588, df = 1, P < 0.001 (see table, above) (2). A follow-up question addressed the potential explanation for such a difference. Respondents were informed that, in fact, all three great apes were classified as endangered and then asked for a reason why they thought a particular ape was not considered in this category. No prompting with answers was provided, and all responses were recorded by the interviewer. Of the 250 respondents who were willing to provide explanations for their choice, the most common reason for the category chosen (35) was that chimpanzees were commonly seen on television, advertisements, and movies and, therefore, must not be in jeopardy.

The results were later duplicated in a similar survey (see the table, right side) of 132 visitors to the Great Ape Trust of Iowa (GATI) (Des Moines, IA) in 2006 (2). There, only 72 of respondents thought chimpanzees were endangered (compared with 94 for gorillas and 92 for orangutans) (for CvG, = 22.53, P < 0.001; for CvO, = 17.21, P < 0.001). Of those who did not believe chimpanzees were endangered, 30 justified their response by noting how often they see chimpanzees in the media and as pets. Given the reality facing chimpanzees in the wildcurrent estimates are that populations could go extinct in the next several decades (3)such data highlight the importance of accurately representing chimpanzees and other apes in popular media, particularly by professional publications such as Science.

The inappropriate portrayal of great apes in advertisements undermines the scientific, welfare, and conservation goals that we and many readers work hard to achieve (4). Respected organizations such as AAAS must take a leadership role in promoting ethically sound practices not only in research they promote, but in fields as diverse as public relations and marketing. Together with like-minded organizations such as the International Society of Primatologists (IPS) and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), we can make progress in shifting the perception of chimpanzees as frivolous subhumans that are not in danger of extinction to more scientifically accurate characterizations of our closest relatives that stir interest, respect, and conservation efforts.

References and Notes

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