Chimps are cute. They’re funny. And viral videos can harm them
Entertaining videos of chimpanzees and other primates raise questions about welfare, may drive a cruel pet-trade and can endanger conservation efforts
Last week, a video featuring chimpanzees watching iPad magic tricks was shared across the internet, including by this newspaper – perhaps you’ve seen it. Maybe it made you laugh? Maybe you thought the chimpanzees appearing in it were cute? For primatologists, however, it probably brought to mind issues of welfare in captive apes, particularly those used in entertainment, the difficulty of funding conservation projects in the wild, and the unfortunate growth of a cruel primate pet-trade which undermines conservation efforts. Unfortunately, many people who view viral videos featuring primates are simply not aware of these issues.
As a comparative psychologist (a psychologist who studies the behaviour and cognition of non-human animals), I frequently work with chimpanzees in zoos and sanctuaries. Research has shown that communities of wild chimpanzees have their own unique sets of commonly used behaviours (like nut-cracking or termite-fishing) that we call chimpanzee culture . By studying captive chimpanzees, I hope to find out more about how these traditions emerge and spread through groups of chimpanzees – simply put, how and why do chimpanzees learn from other chimpanzees?
For my research to bear any relevance to wild chimpanzees, the chimps I work with in captivity need to be kept in a way that mimics their wild environment as closely as possible – and indeed, I know many zoo and sanctuary keepers who pride themselves on maximising the welfare of their chimps by providing as natural an environment for them as they can. This can be done both in terms of enclosures (in the wild chimpanzees would range over dozens of kilometres of rainforest), and by providing stimulating enrichment that might, for example, recreate a foraging situation chimps would face in the wild.
As we might expect from animals we believe learn many of their behaviours from one another, chimpanzees also live very complex social lives, with wild communities sometimes including hundreds of individuals, who form lifelong friendships and alliances even with individuals they are not closely related to. Being part of a social group of other chimps is therefore critical to their welfare in captivity . Unfortunately, not all captive chimpanzees are this lucky.
Chimpanzees are still widely used in the entertainment industry and the use of great apes as entertainment is sadly encouraged by videos such as Chimps Amazed by iPad Magic. While the negative welfare implications to the chimpanzees in such videos may not be obvious at first glance, there is research showing that the training chimpanzees receive in order to make them viable as “entertainment” has a devastating and lifelong impact on their wellbeing . A chimpanzee raised with its primary social contact coming from human trainers, trained to perform “entertaining” behaviours experiences a lifestyle which is far from the naturalistic physical and social environment many experts believe is necessary for their welfare .
As a general rule, only young chimpanzees can be trained like this. Adult chimpanzees are incredibly strong, making it typically too dangerous for humans to have direct contact with them. The chimpanzees featured in the iPad magic video are all young juveniles, judging by their size and their pink faces (which darken with age). Although we don’t know the circumstances of these particular chimpanzees, “entertainment” chimpanzees are often taken from their mothers shortly after birth , and while they may spend some time among other chimps, the majority of their time is spent with human trainers (in the wild, chimpanzees would stay with their mothers for six years or more, until adolescence).
Again, it must be stressed that there is no evidence of maltreatment of the chimps featured in the iPad magic video. However, it does occur in the entertainment industry. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Jane Goodall Institute chimpanzees used in the entertainment industry may be physical beaten, restrained, and may even have teeth removed to prevent them from biting their handlers. When they grow too big to safely work with humans, they may be sent to a zoo or sanctuary, or abandoned in a so-called roadside zoo . Their early contact with humans has a lifelong negative effect upon their social behaviour , with human-raised chimpanzees engaging in less social grooming with their group-mates ; these chimpanzees are left without the necessary social skills to integrate with others of their own kind.
The implications of this type of ape-entertainment video stretch far beyond the welfare of the individual animals involved. When people view images of a chimpanzee with a human or in human environments (like an office), they are more likely to believe that chimpanzees make good pets (which is absolutely untrue ), more likely to underestimate just how critically endangered wild populations of chimpanzees are, and less likely to donate to a charity conserving wild chimpanzee populations.
Research like this indicates that the way we portray great apes in the media has a direct impact on their conservation by changing our willingness to donate to charities working to protect these endangered species. The fact that this media content also makes people more likely to support the keeping of primates as pets suggests that content like this is driving the pet trade in chimpanzees. In countries which are home to wild chimpanzees, the pet trade is a serious threat to conservation , with mothers and group-mates killed in order to obtain infant chimpanzees for sale as pets.
Chimpanzees are not the only primates for which viral videos may be driving an illegal pet trade. Viral videos featuring slow lorises have been shown to lead to an increase in people wanting them as pets, with an increase since 2010 in confiscations of illegally traded endangered lorises. This month has also seen a boom in online searches for ‘finger monkeys’ – pygmy marmosets – with the majority of sites on the first pages of such a search linking to information on buying pygmy marmosets as pets. Like many primates, pygmy marmosets live complex social lives and require a highly stimulating environment, and so do not make appropriate pets .
There are many entertaining videos of chimpanzees, great apes and other primates online depicting them living natural lives in sanctuaries, zoos , or in the wild . Unfortunately, there are also many videos in which chimpanzees are being shamefully exploited simply for our “entertainment”. Next time you watch or consider sharing a video featuring a chimpanzee, ask yourself: where does that chimpanzee live? What is its life like? And should I be supporting this treatment of a highly intelligent, socially complex animal?
For further information on the use of chimpanzees in entertainment, see http://chimpcare.org/in_the_media and http://www.janegoodall.org.uk/chimpanzees/chimpanzee-central/15-chimpanzees/chimpanzee-central/27-chimpanzees-in-entertainment
If you’d like to learn more about the impact being raised by humans can have on chimpanzees, the documentary Project Nim chronicles the life of a chimpanzee raised by humans in an effort to study chimpanzees’ language capabilities.
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