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Chimpanzees Should Not Be Used in TV or Movies

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Lots of people mistake bonobos for chimpanzees, despite the fact that they’re really two different species. But that people are familiar with chimpanzees in the first place is actually somewhat remarkable, given how rare these primates truly are. The IUCN’s most recent estimate (in 2003) for the global population of wild chimpanzees is only 172,700 to 299,700 individuals. Indeed, all African countries in which chimpanzees reside have laws against their capture and trade as food or as pets. It should be somewhat surprising, then, that its actually legal for individuals or businesses in the United States to purchase and own chimpanzees as pets, for use in entertainment, and for biomedical research. The question of chimpanzee use for biomedical research is fraught, but the irresponsibility of using chimpanzees in movies and commercials seems fairly straightforward. But not everyone seems to agree – they would argue that it is chimpanzees’ appearance in mainstream media that has actually allowed for the increased public awareness of the existence of chimpanzees.

Proponents of using chimpanzees as “actors” in mass media argue that familiarity breeds compassion. They argue that the more people see chimps on TV and in movies, the more likely they will be to aid in conservation efforts – even if the chimpanzees are depicted in totally unnatural, contrived situations. And they’re at least partially right: people tend to donate more to help conservation when the species that form the focus of the fundraising campaigns are more familiar.

On the other hand, according to the distortion hypothesis, the appearance of trained chimps in commercials and TV might lead the general public to believe that chimpanzees are not endangered, and could make for good pets. After all, general perception of exotic species is dependent on what people see on TV, in museums, and in zoos and aquariums. According to one organization, there are 70 chimpanzees in use by the entertainment industry, and in the last five years, they were featured in 35 commercials, 15 TV episodes, and 7 movies – all portrayed in human-like situations. And these are not obscure appearances by any means: this includes ads shown during the Super Bowl, for example.

The inclusion of chimpanzees in media isn’t only potentially problematic for conservation efforts – it could lead to injury and death in humans. A recent estimate suggested that there are at least 300 chimpanzees kept as pets in the United States. It is possible that the media presentation of trained chimpanzees interacting with humans fosters the desire among people to acquire them as pets.

Despite the apparent obvious negative outcomes of using chimpanzees in TV and movies, no study has attempted to systematically, empirically investigate whether the use of chimpanzees in mainstream media is harmful or helpful to conservation efforts. But a new study published today in the journal PLoS ONE has pitted these two hypotheses against each other in an attempt to address this important question.

Kara K. Schroepfer and colleagues from Brian Hare’s Duke University lab showed 165 college students short videos, including ones about chimpanzees, and then administered a short questionnaire about those videos.

Each student saw five commercials: one about Coca-Cola, one about Crest toothpaste, another about Aquafresh toothpaste, and a fourth about a Save the Children campaign. It was the fifth commercial that differed among groups, and was the one researchers were actually interested in. One group watched a public service announcement from the Jane Goodall Institute, in which Jane Goodall and others discussed threats faced by wild chimpanzees. The second group – the control group – watched videos of wild chimpanzees behaving naturally, from Mahale National Park. The third group watched a commercial that included chimpanzees behaving in human-like ways and environments from Career Builder, E*trade, or Spirit Bank (examples below).

The survey included a set of questions specifically about chimpanzees, hidden among other questions, so that experiment participants would not know that this study was specifically about chimpanzee commercials. They were asked about the suitability of chimpanzees as pets, about their presence in the media, and about their survival in the wild. After the survey, participants were given the option of spending a portion of their $10 experiment payment on a can of Coca-Cole, a tube of Crest or Aquafresh toothpaste, or a donation to the American Red Cross or a chimpanzee conservation organization.

The distortion hypothesis predicts that those who watched the Goodall Institute video would have more accurate knowledge about chimpanzees compared with those who simply watched the Mahale chimps, and would donate more to conservation. At the same time, it predicts that those who watched the chimpanzee commercials would have less accurate knowledge about chimpanzees, and would be less likely to donate to chimpanzee conservation efforts. On the other hand, the familiarity hypothesis predicts that, compared with those who watched the Mahale chimps, those who watched the Goodall Institute video as well as those who watched the chimpanzee commercials would show more accurate knowledge about chimpanzees. In addition, if the familiarity hypothesis is correct, both groups should be more likely to donate to chimpanzee conservation than the control group, who watched the Mahale chimps.

The results overwhelmingly supported the distortion hypothesis. The entertainment industry’s argument – that mere exposure to chimpanzees in their commercials makes us more compassionate or sympathetic – simply isn’t true. In fact, people were less concerned about the welfare of chimpanzees after watching the TV commercials than after watching the Goodall video or the control video of the Mahale chimps.

And it isn’t just chimpanzees that are harmed by this sort of marketing. “Perhaps most alarming,” the researchers note in the paper, “is the finding that over 35% of those watching the entertainment condition thought private citizens should have the right to own a chimpanzee as a pet – in comparison to 10% in the other conditions.” They hypothesize that this increase in approval may be due to the confusion created by the chimpanzee commercials regarding the size and friendliness of chimpanzees. Only relatively easy-to-control juvenile chimpanzees are used in commercials, but experiment participants (and most people in general) did not have the expertise to know that. In fact, most believed that the chimpanzees in the commercials were mature adults according to the survey. This is precisely the error in thinking that leads humans to be attacked by their pet chimps as they reached maturity, such as Travis:

Travis was a former chimpanzee actor who appeared in advertisements for Old Navy and Coca-Cola. Travis was adopted when he was three days old by Sandra and Jerome Davis. Travis enjoyed watching baseball, and could drive a car and surf the internet.

In 2009, Travis attacked Sandra’s employee, Charla Nash. To try and save Charla, Sandra hit Travis with a shovel and stabbed him with a butcher knife. When emergency workers and officers arrived, Travis smashed into a police car, trying to attack the officer inside. The officer shot Travis several times. Police followed a trail of blood and found Travis. He had crawled to the back of his cage and bled to death.

Travis bit off Charla’s hands, her jaw, and most of her face. There were serious injuries to her brain tissue. Charla’s injuries were so horrific that hospital workers who treated her had to receive counseling. After seven hours of surgery, doctors managed to reattach her jaw, but Charla has no nose, lips, or eyes.

This is not to say that chimpanzees are evil. What it does say is that chimpanzees have no place in human environments, whether that’s on TV, in the movies, or in peoples’ homes as pets.

Perhaps these are unsurprising findings to those who are familiar with primate behavior, but this study suggests that much of the population is seriously misinformed and fairly ignorant when it comes to understanding chimpanzees, their plight, their endangered status, or their basic behavior. Conservationists now have solid, empirical data to use when advocating against the portrayal of chimpanzees for entertainment purposes.

For more information:
Read the open-access paper in PLoS ONE
See the specific videos used in this study here.
Chimps Are Not Pets, a website by Dr. Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
The Jane Goodall Institute
My review of an excellent book, Bonobo Handshake
Extinction Countdown: Should Captive-Bred Chimpanzees Have Full Endangered Species Act Protection?

“Use of ‘entertainment’ chimpanzees in commercials distorts public perception regarding their conservation status,” Kara K. Schroepfer, Alexandra G. Rosati, Tanya Chartrand & Brian Hare. PLoS ONE, Oct. 12, 2011. 10.1371/journal.pone.0026048

Chimpanzee photo source, used under Creative Commons license.

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. hanmeng 9:18 pm 10/12/2011

    Even if we accept the methodology & conclusions of the research, it’s unwise to call for censorship.

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  2. 2. urbpan 6:09 am 10/13/2011

    Maybe there should be a requirement that any use of a wild animal actor should be accompanied by a statement about that species’ conservation status.

    After an Exxon commercial: “There are an estimated 3500 tigers left in the wild.”

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  3. 3. Geoff 6:27 am 10/13/2011

    Chimps are popular on TV because humans have an innate tendency to project their values, feelings and attitudes (in this case, “monkey-minded wildness” onto other species. On the other hand, “species preservation” is also a uniquely human value that is NOT inherent in Nature. Perhaps if we let Nature do what IT does so well, and just focus on US not getting in the way with our misguided tendencies toward destruction, pollution, AND artificial preservation . . . .

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  4. 4. isfeasachme 12:30 pm 10/13/2011

    There is an economy of scale problem with this article that borders on sensationalism.

    “…the more people see chimps on TV and in movies, the more likely they will be to aid in conservation efforts…”

    Widespread impact – large benefit potential.

    “…according to the distortion hypothesis, the appearance of trained chimps in commercials and TV might lead the general public to believe that chimpanzees are not endangered…”

    It is not one or the other. Show chimps on TV and some might have this misconception. Show no chimps on TV and chimps will fall from public consciousness altogether completely precluding the potential benefits of heightened awareness.

    “…and could make for good pets.”

    Now this is just silly. This outcome would affect an insignificant minority for a VERY short time.

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  5. 5. Tomsing 1:42 pm 10/13/2011

    The study seems pretty severely flawed. The alternative to having chimps as “actors” in commercials, TV shows, and movies is not having more nature videos of chimps. The folks who brought you Planet of the Apes were not deciding between that movie and producing a documentary for NatGeo. So it doesn’t make sense to have a control group of people watching nature videos, if the intent is to measure the effect of chimp “actors” on perception and charitable giving.

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  6. 6. Tomsing 1:45 pm 10/13/2011

    And I’m not at all clear on why the familiarity hypothesis indicates that people that watch chimp actors would be more knowledgeable about chimps compared to those who watched the control video. In your earlier description of it, you mentioned that familiarity breeds compassion, not knowledge. Is that an error? Is it your error, or was it an error in the study?

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  7. 7. Tomsing 1:51 pm 10/13/2011

    Apologize for the multiple posts, an edit feature would be nice….

    Really, the only way that the distortion hypothesis is not trivial, and that the familiarity hypothesis is not absurd, with respect to knowledge, is in the long term. Clearly, if you’re comparing knowledge about a subject between Joe, who just watched an informational video about that subject, and Susie, who watched a video that distorts that subject, Joe is expected to do better. The interesting effect comes in when you give them some time in which either might be motivated to go look up more about the subject. And, from your blog post, the study is not sufficiently broad to get at that.

    I believe I’m done, now.

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  8. 8. jasongoldman 2:07 pm 10/13/2011

    Tomsing: If the familiarity argument says that it is *exposure* that leads to compassion and could therefore help conservation, then it seems reasonable to compare participant response to two types of videos – the commercials and the Goodall PSA (and the naturally-behaving Mahale video as a control).

    The distortion hypothesis, on the other hand, says that exposure by itself doesn’t impact on conservation. Instead, its the information content of the video/commercial that is critical.

    What this experiment attempted to do, then, is hold exposure constant, while varying the informational content of the video (explicit conservation in the case of the PSA, no information in the case of the control video, and a completely unrelated message in the case of the commercials).

    Not only did the commercials not show compassion or a desire to engage in conservation behaviors (compared with the control condition), but it *also* lead to misinformation concerning things such as whether chimpanzees are suitable pets.

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  9. 9. Tomsing 2:16 pm 10/13/2011

    Jason, all it measured was the relative effect on behavior of seeing chimps in different ways. It didn’t measure the effect against NOT seeing chimps at all, which is the more reasonable neutral condition. It’s entirely possible that any type of exposure increases compassion, but that the type of exposure also has an effect. That is, the experiment confirmed the distortion hypothesis (at least as a short term effect) but did nothing to test the exposure hypothesis directly.

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  10. 10. jasongoldman 2:43 pm 10/13/2011

    Tomsing: I think you’re right that the two hypotheses aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. And I think we’re agreed that as far as information content is concerned, the results hold for the distortion hypothesis.

    You write, “It’s entirely possible that any type of exposure increases compassion,” but the results show something different. They suggest that mere exposure is not enough (given the results for the control and TV commercial conditions, compared with the PSA) – and, not only that, but that the wrong type of exposure can actually be hurtful with respect to conservation (given the results for the TV commercials, compared with the two other conditions).

    Given the results, I’m not sure what the inclusion of a “no-chimpanzees” condition would give us, here, that we don’t already have from the three conditions that were used.

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  11. 11. Tomsing 2:58 pm 10/13/2011

    The no-chimp condition gives you a level of compassion for chimps with no exposure to chimps within the last 5 minutes (which, again, is what is likely to be the case if your conclusion, that chimps should not be used as actors, is adopted). I suspect it would be different from the “baseline” Mahale group.

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  12. 12. Tomsing 12:01 pm 10/14/2011

    After having slept on it, I think the point I am trying to make is best expressed as:

    In order to test the familiarity hypothesis, which says that exposure to chimps increases knowledge of chimps and donations to conservation groups, the control group should be no exposure to chimps.

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  13. 13. JoeErwin 5:23 pm 10/16/2011

    I know Brian Hare and believe him to be an excellent scientist. The results of the study speak for themselves and provide evidence that is worth considering, with regard to public policy regarding chimpanzees. I agree that a study involving some other imagery and/or instructions, showing something other than chimpanzees would be worth doing. Even so, the study from the Hare lab was worthwhile and enlightening.

    But the REAL issue is whether private ownership of chimpanzees should be allowed at all. In my opinion, private ownership of chimpanzees (be it ownership by an individual citizen or company or corporate ownership) presents hazards to people and chimpanzees. Further, it IS illegal to bring any kind of primates into the US for sale as pets or for commercial uses, and it has been illegal for a long time. However, it appears that there has been some continuing illegal trafficking in infant chimpanzees, probably including smuggling out of countries of origin and into the US.

    Sadly, privately owned animals are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act, as all chimpanzees in zoological gardens and research colonies are. All pets and commercially owned chimpanzees should be placed in sanctuaries, and the Animal Welfare Act should be extended to protect chimpanzees in sanctuaries.

    No chimpanzees in facilities where they are protected under the Animal Welfare Act should ever be relocated to any situation where that protection does not exist. Most existing sanctuaries do not submit to USDA inspections under the AWA. They should all be required to do so.

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  14. 14. dick214 4:56 pm 10/17/2011

    The keeping of chimpanzees as pets is likely to lead to severe harm for the human keeper. I should like to watch.

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  15. 15. Teacher108 11:39 am 10/19/2011

    This article is flawed in many ways and is pseudoscientific at best. But one of the greatest flaws is the idea that the USA is full of ape actors. In the USA there are only a handful of chimpanzee the are “for rent”. if you look at the site map you will find only a handful of trainers with chimps (twenty two) and only a few of the Chimpanzees in their care are of right age and temperament to “work”, most are retired. In all the USA there are less than 10 chimpanzees that are of an age and temperament to work. If you query an animal agent (as i have many times, 50 are listed in film and ad production guides), . Finding a cute, trained, well behaved chimpanzee with trainers that have film credits and experience ready to work for a commercial project is a very rare thing. Conan O’Brien desperately wanted a chimp in his program and no one could find him one he was shocked when he stated there are no more chimps for rent in America. The extorted facts place the entire idea of the article in question

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