Chimps Aren’t Chumps

You see it on greeting cards and in countless TV programs and commercials: the exaggerated grin on the face of a young chimpanzee, often one that’s wearing sunglasses or a grass skirt. It’s about as common a ploy for laughs as a pie in the face. Generations have been amused by the antics of Bonzo, J. Fred Muggs, Zippy and, more recently, the business-suited chimps of A chimpanzee covering its eyes in embarrassment? What’s not to love?

But this picture, harmless as it might appear, is giving the public the mistaken and even dangerous impression that chimpanzees have a safe and comfortable existence — and nothing could be further from the truth.

A survey that I and several colleagues conducted in 2005 found that one in three visitors to the Lincoln Park Zoo assumed that chimpanzees are not endangered. Yet more than 90 percent of these same visitors understood that gorillas and orangutans face serious threats to their survival. And many of those who imagined chimpanzees to be safe reported that they based their thinking on the prevalence of chimps in advertisements, on television and in the movies.

In reality, chimpanzees face a severe threat in the wild: their numbers have dropped to about 20 percent of what they were a century ago, as their habitat in equatorial Africa is deforested and they are hunted as bushmeat. And once you know this, it can become more difficult to view chimpanzees as silly subhuman caricatures. Consider that chimpanzees share as much as 98 percent of our genetic makeup. They make and use tools, recognize and identify hundreds of individuals in their groups and learn from others skills like termite fishing. Of course, the reverse is also true: we are 98 percent chimpanzee. Would we condone putting funny clothes on human children so that we could laugh at the way they look like subhuman buffoons?

A progressive society should weigh the moral costs and benefits of practices like these. Misrepresentations of chimpanzees may not be as repugnant as racism, bigotry or sexism. But they can still serve as a benchmark for our society’s moral progress.

The good news is that a growing number of companies, including Honda, Puma and Subaru, have pledged to stop the use of primates in advertisements. The journal Science recently stopped its promotional campaign featuring chimpanzees in hats reading the magazine. That two consecutive Super Bowls have gone by without a major ad campaign featuring a chimpanzee is reason for optimism. Sometimes, success has to be measured in small increments.

Steve Ross, the supervisor of behavioral and cognitive research at the Lester Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo.