New research demonstrates the damaging influence of the media on public perceptions of chimpanzees
(Chicago, July 15, 2011)—–If anyone has ever wondered how influential are mass media portrayals of chimpanzees in television, feature films, advertisements and greeting cards on how the public at large perceives this endangered species, this is exactly what researchers, based at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, have sought to uncover in a new, nationwide study published two days ago in PLoSOne, the open-access journal of the Public Library of Sciences. Their findings reveal the significant role that the media plays in creating widespread misunderstanding about the conservation status and nature of this great ape.
A majority of those who responded were more likely to embrace the assumption that chimpanzees are not an endangered species after seeing them portrayed with humans. Moreover, they were more likely to falsely believe that the apes would make an appropriate “pet” though in reality their massive strength and innate, aggressive nature makes them extremely dangerous. Composite digital images were used by the researchers to experimentally test survey respondents’ actions to chimpanzees in various circumstances. For example, survey respondents who were shown a photograph of a young chimpanzee standing next to a person were significantly less likely to believe that chimpanzees are endangered in the wild, as compared to respondents that viewed the exact same picture where the human was digitally removed.
Lead scientist Steve Ross, Ph.D., founder of Project ChimpCARE and assisitant director of the Lester Fisher Center for the Study of Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo said, “the findings are particularly relevant considering the public popularity of advertisements, movies and television programs featuring chimpanzee actors. These practices have received broad criticism based on animal welfare concerns.” Ross further explained that the active “acting” careers of these animals are typically only a few short years, after which they become too large and powerful; further, he explained, “because chimpanzees can live 50 to 60 years, those deemed no longer useful to the media may end up in suboptimal housing for the next several decades.”
The research findings demonstrate that the negative outcomes of media use of chimpanzees likely extends beyond individual animal welfare issues and potentially undermines important conservation efforts for this endangered species. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, wild chimpanzees are severely endangered and could very likely become extinct within 10-50 years if current trends continue.
Said Dr. Ross, “Displaying chimpanzees with humans isn’t the only way in which public viewers were affected. Those seeing images of chimpanzees in human-like settings, such as a typical office space, were also less likely to think that chimpanzees are endangered.”
Purchasing and owning chimpanzees as pets are actually legal in most of the United States but are practices with considerable animal welfare and public safety risk. In 2009, a pet chimp named Travis, in Connecticutt, attacked, and very seriously injured a friend of its owner causing serious facial wounds and was subsequently killed by law enforcement officers. Project ChimpCARE, an initiative based at Lincoln Park Zoo, estimates that up to 100 privately owned chimpanzees live across the country in basements, garages and backyards, often in unsafe and unsuitable environments.
Dr. Ross: “The inaccurate and frivolous portrayal of these complex and endangered primates should be of serious concern to anyone interested in animal care and safety. Whether intentional or not these images are resulting in significant effects on perception of chimps that may hinder critical conservation and welfare initiatives that most of the general public supports.”