Debates surrounding the use of chimpanzees in entertainment, such as the one earlier this year between PETA and Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards, almost always center on animal welfare concerns — for example, how the animals are treated during photography sessions. This is an appropriate concern for a variety of reasons. Aversive training techniques are reportedly used to get chimpanzees to “act” in ways totally unnatural to them during such film shoots.
But welfare concerns extend beyond the filming sessions. These animals are abruptly taken from their biological mothers, severing this important bond early in life to facilitate training and human familiarity. And these images, which often portray chimpanzees in human settings and situations, send the wrong message to the public about the conservation status of this endangered species at a time when it needs our support most.
As a scientist who has studied chimpanzees in the wild for 17 years, I know very well the important role mothers play in the lives of young chimpanzees, and the benefits they get by growing up in their own social group. My wife and I have witnessed the extraordinary mother-infant bond between wild chimpanzees in the Goualougo Triangle in the Republic of Congo and have marveled at young chimpanzees growing up to be dynamic and cognitively complex beings.
Maturing chimpanzees spend roughly the first six to seven years in near constant contact or close proximity to their mothers, observing what foods are safe to eat and social norms for interacting with other chimpanzees and even learning to fabricate complex tools for certain foraging tasks. To deprive infant chimpanzees of this critical time with their mothers can emotionally handicap these animals, pushing them further away from any life resembling what they evolved for.
Most importantly, it impairs their ability to integrate with other chimpanzees. With a life span of 50 or more years, this has serious consequences for the animals’ well-being.
However, the argument against the frivolous portrayal of chimpanzees on greeting cards and in movies is not simply about their welfare. Scientists at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, with which I am affiliated, have clearly demonstrated the link between how we portray chimpanzees in media and our level of understanding of their stark conservation status in the wild. The fact is that chimpanzee populations in Africa are shrinking fast because of humans.
Showing chimpanzees dressed up in costumes and in silly poses on greeting cards may seem harmless, but it counters important efforts of conservation groups like our own, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Jane Goodall Institute. It also risks hampering vital financial support for chimpanzee conservation.
We are in an era of rapid industrial expansion into the last remaining pockets of central Africa’s tropical forests, where significant populations of chimpanzees still reside. Funding to combat the detrimental impacts on chimpanzees is needed now more than ever.
Last year another major greeting card company removed these sorts of images from the shelves, and now Hallmark Cards can do the right thing as well. As part of its mission, Hallmark pledges to make the world a more caring place. This is one simple way it can do so, by facilitating important global conservation efforts on behalf of chimpanzees.
David Morgan works with the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project in the Republic of Congo and at Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago.