Movie producers and advertisers have long relied on chimpanzees comically dressed as humans to entertain their audience, but scientists say the practice is bad for chimps not only as individuals but also as a species threatened with extinction.
Primatologists reported Thursday in the journal Science that only 66 percent of visitors to Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago thought chimps were endangered. Many people surveyed said they assumed that because the apes are so widely used in the entertainment and advertising industry, wild chimps must be plentiful and thriving.
"We now have evidence that this inaccurate and inappropriate portrayal of chimpanzees may negatively influence the way the public perceives this endangered species, which is in need of serious conservation efforts," said Lincoln Park Zoo's Steve Ross.
In fact, chimpanzees are officially an endangered species whose prospects in the wild are increasingly bleak. The number of wild chimps in Africa is thought to have shrunk from perhaps 2 million across the continent in 1900 to an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 and falling today. Only four nations now have significant chimp populations.
Ross, supervisor of behavioral and cognitive research at the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, is one of two lead authors of the Science article, along with Kirsten Lukas, a former Lincoln Park primate curator now at the Cleveland zoo. Among the other five authors are Elizabeth Lonsdorf, director of the Fisher Center, and pioneering wild chimp researcher Jane Goodall.
The paper, titled "Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees," was based on a survey done at Lincoln Park's ape house in 2005. Nearly 1,000 visitors agreed to answer a lengthy series of questions about their use of the ape house and their overall knowledge of the apes.
For the 57th and final question in the survey, the researcher showed the visitors glossy color photographs of a gorilla, an orangutan and a chimpanzee, and asked which are endangered in the wild. All three are endangered.
Ninety-six percent answered correctly on gorillas and 91 percent on orangutans -- far higher than the 66 percent who labeled chimps as endangered.
Among those who thought chimps are not in danger, the most common reason was that "chimpanzees were commonly seen on television, advertisements, and movies and, therefore, must not be in jeopardy," the paper said.
The study was duplicated at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa in Des Moines, with almost identical results.
Both Ross and Lukas said awareness of chimps' status likely would be even less among the general population than in a zoo setting.
The paper singles out two ads for criticism, including a television commercial for CareerBuilder.com that portrays chimpanzees "as misbehaving business executives." The online job search service is partially owned by Tribune Co., which also owns the Chicago Tribune.
The service said the 2007 ad is no longer used, having cycled out with the introduction of a new ad campaign.
"CareerBuilder.com's spots featuring chimpanzees at the office are among the most popular and beloved Super Bowl commercials of all time and have received numerous accolades," said a company spokeswoman.
The ad did attract criticism from animal rights groups, she said, and the company assured them it worked with "trainers who are among the best in their industry." An American Humane Association representative observed the filming, she said.
'Not funny to us'
Lisa New, vice chairwoman of North American zoos' chimpanzee species survival program and head of Knoxville Zoo's animal collections, hailed the study, saying it should help publicize the dark side of using chimps in the entertainment industry.
Because adult chimps are much too strong and temperamental to use as actors, New said, the chimps seen in ads and films are youngsters taken from mothers and natural family units to be raised and trained by humans.
"As entertainers, they are washed up by age 5, 6, or 7, and what happens to them then?" New said. "They have another 50 or 60 years of life ahead of them. ... They could get sold to roadside zoos, as private pets or whatever.
"To see them in that situation, taken from their mothers and not being kept in an appropriate setting, that is not funny to us."