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Chimpanzees’ public profile belies endangered status

Television appearances aren’t helping chimpanzees’ endangered status.

Common depictions of chimpanzees wearing suits and ties on television, in movies and in other forms of advertising decrease the species’ chances of success in the wild, research has shown. After viewing the chimpanzees’ appearances, viewers were found to be less likely to contribute to their conservation, according to a Duke study published in the journal PlosOne Oct. 12.

“As far as we know, this study is the first of its kind,” said lead author Kara Schroepfer, a second-year graduate student in evolutionary anthropology. “A lot of people had this idea that just showing chimps in any situation is going to be good for them.”

Chimpanzees are considered an endangered species with a decreasing population trend, according to the International Union Conservation of Nature.

During the course of the study, three groups of Duke students were shown either a conservation message from Jane Goodall, footage of chimpanzees in the wild or actual television commercials featuring chimpanzees, including former Super Bowl ads. The students that viewed the CareerBuilder, E-Trade or Spirit Bank commercials featuring chimpanzees were less likely to donate afterwards to chimpanzee conservation.

Brian Hare, study co-author and a professor of evolutionary anthropology, said people in general do not know much about chimpanzees, noting that theoretically, Duke students should know more than the general population.

“The baseline was 50 percent,” Hare noted. “I can’t believe only 50 percent of educated people know that chimps are endangered.”

In the study, Schroepfer and Hare discuss two hypotheses that people have held in the past in regard to chimpanzees in entertainment.

“The familiarity hypothesis arises from the idea that because chimps are so human-like, it’s natural for humans to think they’re so cute,” Schroepfer said. “Maybe they’ll want to donate more, maybe they’ll want to go home and look up chimpanzees on Wikipedia.”

This study provides evidence against the familiarity hypothesis and in favor of the distortion hypothesis, which states that the impression given to television viewers by commercials such as the ones used in the study hinders the overall cause of chimpanzee conservation.

“People are more likely to think that chimps must not be endangered because obviously people are able to put them in these commercials, so maybe there are a lot of them left,” Schroepfer said.

The ads also lead viewers to believe that chimpanzees, who appear cute and cuddly in advertisements, are suited for life alongside humans, Schroepfer added.

“Chimpanzees make horrible pets. They should never be held as pets,” she said. “This study has shown that people who see them on TV are more likely to think they make good pets.”

American television commercials are also shown in Africa, Hare noted, and could further stimulate the illegal trade in great apes if Africans believe the commercials show Americans want chimpanzees as pets.

“If one YouTube video goes viral in Africa, it could be the end of the wild apes,” Hare said.

Chimpanzees used in the entertainment industry are retired by the age of 8-years-old. Chimpanzees reach adulthood at age 15 and can live to be 60-years-old, Hare said, noting that adult chimpanzees are rarely shown on television.

Schroepfer said retired entertainment chimpanzees often go to roadside zoos or biomedical facilities. ChimpCare.org, a website that lists the location of the 300 individual captive chimpanzees in the United States lists 13 chimpanzees in North Carolina, 11 in the North Carolina Zoo and two in an unaccredited facility.

Joseph Feldblum, an associate in research of evolutionary anthropology, said the findings reflect the impact of images in affecting attitudes towards chimpanzees. Feldblum manages the lab of Anne Pusey, chair and James B. Duke professor of evolutionary anthropology, which focuses on chimpanzee research.

“Basically if there’s some image or event that readily comes to mind, that kind of bears on any event or thing,” he said. “People think about these powerful emotive visions they have in their heads more readily than they do statistics.”

The study also found that television can be used to encourage public interest in chimpanzee conservation. Viewers of the Jane Goodall message left the experiment knowing more about chimpanzees and more likely to donate to the cause. Nearly all the conservation message viewers came away knowing that chimpanzees are endangered.

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