Animal Emotions

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"Are You with the Right Mate?" The Media's Misuse of Chimpanzees

The misuse of chimpanzees is harmful to endangered apes

In a recent cover story in the magazine edition of PT a profound question is asked, "Are You with the Right Mate"?

The article is interesting and covers all of the nitty-gritty about the social dynamics of relationships. But, what caught my eye, and that of many others who have taken the time to write to me, is the use of photos of a chimpanzee in the article. Their, and my, concern was not that a chimpanzee was used to portray a human male but rather centered on the use/abuse of the dressed-up chimpanzee in the first place. I have a good sense of humor but didn't find the pictures at all amusing.

There are also compelling ethical issues about the use of chimpanzees and other animals in mediaVanessa Woods has written about some of these issues and there are also great concerns about how the use of chimpanzees presents a false image to the public about their conservation status. Chimpanzees and other animals don't normally run around in fancy clothes or ride on the back of scooters.

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In a previous essay I noted that misrepresentations of chimpanzees influence how they are perceived. It's worth repeating now. 

"Two recent studies of how endangered chimpanzees are portrayed show clearly that media can influence how animals are perceived. The first, by Stephen Ross and his colleagues, shows 'the public is less likely to think that chimpanzees are endangered compared to other great apes, and that this is likely the result of media misportrayals in movies, television and advertisements.' Their detailed study demonstrated 'that those viewing a photograph of a chimpanzee with a human standing nearby were 35.5 percent more likely to consider wild populations to be stable/healthy compared to those seeing the exact same picture without a human. Likewise, the presence of a human in the photograph increases the likelihood that they consider chimpanzees as appealing as a pet. We also found that respondents seeing images in which chimpanzees are shown in typically human settings (such as an office space) were more likely to perceive wild populations as being stable and healthy compared to those seeing chimpanzees in other contexts. These findings shed light on the way that media portrayals of chimpanzees influence public attitudes about this important and endangered species.'

"Another study, conducted by Kara Schroepfer and her colleagues also discovered that the use of chimpanzees in commercials negatively distorts the public perception of chimpanzees regarding their conservation status and that this distortion can hinder conservation efforts. These two studies should serve as a warning that responsible media is essential for communicating who other animals really are and how their lives are in peril. I feel confident that when other studies are done for animals who aren't as charismatic or as closely related to us the same sort of discoveries will be made. These two studies can serve as models for what needs to be done on a wider scale especially because most people don't have the opportunity to see wild animals first-hand and many really don't understand how close they are to disappearing forever."

Given the enormous amount of press animals are receiving in what might be called the "century of the animal," we should expect those who use animals in media to represent them as the beings who they are, not as who we want them to be or as mere objects, often "humanified," to be used for our own ends. Their use can harm them in unimagined ways and chimpanzees and other animals do not need or deserve to be harmed any more than they are. 

The teaser image is from here

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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