The other day I received another card featuring a ‘smiling’ chimpanzee. It was a ‘good luck’ card for my new job and clearly chosen with some consideration for my interests. It was a lovely thought. Unfortunately, it was entirely the wrong thought and I was surprised that I hadn’t ranted about it to the sender in the past. After all, I’ve ranted about it on stage to complete strangers.
There are several problems with cards of this type. One easily dismissed, but grating problem is the insistence of many of them to refer to chimps as monkeys. They’re apes. If you don’t know the difference, that’s a shame, do find out, but it’s not the end of the world.
The next problem is more important. Chimps are endangered – you know that, right? Well, maybe not. When asked, visitors to two zoos in the USA were more likely to think that both gorillas and orang-utans were endangered, than they were to think that chimps were endangered. A follow-up question ascertained that a number of respondents thought that chimps couldn’t be endangered, because they appear in the media so often.
A follow-up to this study in 2011, showed people pictures of chimps in different scenarios – in an office, in captivity, with a person standing next to them. People were more likely to think that chimp populations were stable and healthy when they saw an anthropomorphic image (a chimp in an office, next to a person), than in other images.
So, that card that you’re sending with the image of an ape ‘monkeying’ around in a funny human scenario may actually harm the conservation of the species that’s depicted on it.
My biggest concern, however, is not about scientific snobbery or public perception of conservation need. It’s about animal cruelty. That card is not a smiling, happy chimp, wittily portrayed for your amusement. The truth is very different.
That ‘smile’ that you see is a fear grimace. It’s usually associated with seeking reassurance, as a response to aggression, and, well, fear. Those animals that are used for cards are trained to produce the expression. I’m not going to speculate too much here as to how they’re trained, I’m sure that there are different methods. But remember, they are trained to show fear on demand. Add that to the reports of animal cruelty amongst trainers, it’s not a pretty picture.
The other thing that doesn’t make a pretty picture is an adult chimp. Strong, wilful and dangerous, they are also nowhere near as cutesy as their younger selves. So they get retired. However, these chimps have been socially isolated and ‘trained’ from a young age, and it leaves its scars into adult life. Most are unable to properly socialise or integrate with other animals; as members of a highly social species, they are often condemned to a long, lonely retirement, housed alone.
So, if you do want to wish me luck, Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, get well soon, I will appreciate it. It’s wonderful to know that you’ve thought of me. However, please don’t do it with a picture of a ‘smiling’ chimp.
Fischer LL, “No Animals Were Harmed…”: Protecting chimpanzees from cruelty behind the curtain. Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal 405-442
Parr LA, Cohen M, de Waal F (2005) Influence of Social Context on the Use of Blended and Graded Facial Displays in Chimpanzees. International Journal of Primatology 26 (1): 73-103
Ross SR, Vreeman VM, Lonsdorf EV (2011) Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets. PLoS ONE 6(7): e22050.
Ross SR, Lukas KE, Lonsdorf EV, Stoinski TS, Hare B, Shumaker R, and Goodall J (2008) Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees. Science 319 (5869): 1487.
Trottier A, Animal Cruelty in Hollywood: The Chimpanzee. (2009) (Cult)ure Magazine.