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.