Chimpanzees: Not for your Entertainment

By Kelly Ostrofsky
May 19, 2015

In one of the labs in the undergraduate introduction to biological anthropology course, one activity asks students to identify facial expression in humans. The six facial expressions are often said to be “universal” across different cultures around the world. Students usually find this task very simple; if you have ever taken an introductory psychology course, you probably recognize the images already. The facial expressions represent A) anger, B) fright, C) disgust, D) surprise, E) happiness, and F) sadness.

Figure caption: Six fairly universal facial expressions in humans (left), and six common facial expressions in chimpanzees (right)

Next, students are asked to identify facial expressions for a series of images of chimpanzees. These aren’t quite as straightforward, especially if you don’t know much about chimpanzees. The expressions shown here are generally interpreted to represent: A) excitement, B) playfulness, C) anger, D) fear, E) affection, and F) submission. One of the answers the students invariably get wrong is the one for the fourth image; while this expression might look to you like a smile, it is actually a fear grimace. You might also note that this is probably the expression you would see on a chimpanzee’s face if you saw them on television, in a movie, or featured on a greeting card. A face that looks like it’s smiling is what the entertainment industry wants for a performance or posing for a picture.

Outside of biological anthropology, most people are probably familiar with chimpanzees based on the entertainment industry, and probably do not realize that they are an endangered species, and their populations are on the decline. While some might argue that familiarizing the public with chimpanzees might make them more willing to advance conservation efforts, recent evidence would suggest otherwise. Based on surveys conducted at the Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago, IL) and the Great Ape Trust of Iowa (Des Moines, IA), the general public is less likely to believe that chimpanzees are endangered compared to other great apes (Ross et al., 2008). The researchers conducting the study indicated that the most commonly cited reason by participants for why they had not thought chimpanzees to be endangered was the common portrayal of chimpanzees in the media and as pets. However, the general public probably does not realize that chimpanzees used in the media via movies, television, and advertisements are typically very young, as they are still physically manageable and maximally appealing to viewers; they also tend to be portrayed in very unnatural and contrived settings.

The goal of a follow-up experimental survey by Ross et al. (2011) was to see what kinds of images of chimpanzees might influence people’s perceptions of the species. They found that individuals viewing a photo of a chimpanzee with a human nearby, rather than the chimpanzee alone, were more likely to believe that wild chimpanzee populations were stable and healthy; it also increased the chance that they would consider chimpanzees as suitable pets. Another study by Schroepfer et al. (2011) aimed to determine whether the use of entertainment chimpanzees in the popular media negatively distorts perceptions of the wider public regarding the conservation status of wild chimpanzees and their suitability as pets. Their study revealed that participants that viewed commercials with entertainment chimpanzees were less likely to understand the conservation status of chimpanzees as endangered, as well as less likely to understand their unsuitability as pets; they were also less likely to be willing to contribute to conservation efforts.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists wild chimpanzees as an endangered species, with declining populations threatened by habitat destruction, disease, and poaching (e.g., for bushmeat and for the illegal pet trade). However, it is clear that the public perception of wild chimpanzees is seriously misinformed. So the next time you see a cute chimpanzee on a commercial, in a movie, or on a greeting card, take a second to think where this little guy (or girl) came from, and what he/she may have gone through for the purpose of your entertainment.

You can find more information on this topic from the following pages:

References

Ross SR, Lukas KE, Lonsdorf E V, Stoinski TS, Hare B, Shumaker R, Goodall J. 2008. Inappropriate use and portrayal of chimpanzees. Science 319:1487.

Ross SR, Vreeman VM, Lonsdorf E V. 2011. Specific image characteristics influence attitudes about chimpanzee conservation and use as pets. PLoS One 6:1–5.

Schroepfer KK, Rosati AG, Chartrand T, Hare B. 2011. Use of “entertainment” chimpanzees in commercials distorts public perception regarding their conservation status. PLoS One 6:1–8.