October 13, 2011

Should chimpanzees be used in entertainment?

There is an article in Scientific American covering a paper in PLoS ONE, arguing that chimpanzees should not be used on TV or Movies, and should not be used as pets. I will let readers evaluate the arguments for what they are worth, but I will just make a couple of comments:
  • I never quite understood the "endangered species" concept. Species come and go, that's Evolution 101 for you. And, some species go because of a new predator that they can't cope with, e.g., man. I am inherently suspicious of an antiquarian mentality that humans are supposed to preserve species as they are today, or even restore them to some older state: if we interfere with evolution, why should it always be to preserve species, and not to cull some of them?
  • There are good reasons why we should not want chimpanzees to go extinct, and they have nothing to do with the preservationist imperative. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives, and hence provide an important comparative baseline in studies of human evolution. The study of man and all its intellectual and practical benefits would suffer if there were no chimps around.
  • Who decides whether a species is endangered or not? According to the SciAm article, "the global population of wild chimpanzees is only 172,700 to 299,700 individuals." That corresponds to an effective population size well above estimates for the ancestral effective population size of either humans or the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.
  • It is true that TV and Movies present a distorted picture of chimpanzees. Most chimp appearances make them appear "cute" and "human-like". But, that could be said for nearly every animal on TV. You never see domestic dogs, for example, portrayed as killers on TV, and yet, there are dozens of fatal and many more non-fatal "dog bites man" incidents every year. According to the authors' logic, TV and Movies distort the behavior of dogs, making them appear like "Lassie" when they are in fact are often dangerous animals.
  • Nor is it true that if we did not use chimpanzees in TV and Movies we would have an accurate portrayal of them: if you don't watch chimps on TV ads, you will not automatically sit through scientifically-minded documentaries about them. TV and Movies happily portray all sorts of animals, domestic or otherwise in a stereotypical form. Ask a 5-year old whether they like a whole series of animals, and you will get back a whole series of positive and negative stereotypes, some of which go back to Aesop and beyond.
  • Should people's exposure to non-human primates in entertainment be limited to CGI creatures like King Kong, the apes in Planet of the Apes, or CGI chimps that will surely take the place of real ones if the use of the latter is outlawed?
  • It could be argued that the unprecedented wide-scale breeding and rearing of chimps is the initial stage of a process of domestication of that animal. Surely, early dogs, cats, horses, etc. were dangerous animals compared to modern breeds, but our ancestors did succeed in making them more amenable to human society. Why should it be illegal for people to keep whatever animal they see fit as pets, provided they are (a) not cruel to it, and (b) take proper precautions not to endanger their neighbors?

PLoS ONE 6(10): e26048. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026048

Use of “Entertainment” Chimpanzees in Commercials Distorts Public Perception Regarding Their Conservation Status

Kara K. Schroepfer et al.

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are often used in movies, commercials and print advertisements with the intention of eliciting a humorous response from audiences. The portrayal of chimpanzees in unnatural, human-like situations may have a negative effect on the public's understanding of their endangered status in the wild while making them appear as suitable pets. Alternatively, media content that elicits a positive emotional response toward chimpanzees may increase the public's commitment to chimpanzee conservation. To test these competing hypotheses, participants (n = 165) watched a series of commercials in an experiment framed as a marketing study. Imbedded within the same series of commercials was one of three chimpanzee videos. Participants either watched 1) a chimpanzee conservation commercial, 2) commercials containing “entertainment” chimpanzees or 3) control footage of the natural behavior of wild chimpanzees. Results from a post-viewing questionnaire reveal that participants who watched the conservation message understood that chimpanzees were endangered and unsuitable as pets at higher levels than those viewing the control footage. Meanwhile participants watching commercials with entertainment chimpanzees showed a decrease in understanding relative to those watching the control footage. In addition, when participants were given the opportunity to donate part of their earnings from the experiment to a conservation charity, donations were least frequent in the group watching commercials with entertainment chimpanzees. Control questions show that participants did not detect the purpose of the study. These results firmly support the hypothesis that use of entertainment chimpanzees in the popular media negatively distorts the public's perception and hinders chimpanzee conservation efforts.

Link

11 comments:

Jeffery said...

Interesting!..The article in question seemed to be more concerned with political correctness than actual science. One would have to compare regional outcomes to garner a broader spectrum of results given that the study is biased by one region.
Cheers!

Onur said...

I never quite understood the "endangered species" concept. Species come and go, that's Evolution 101 for you. And, some species go because of a new predator that they can't cope with, e.g., man. I am inherently suspicious of an antiquarian mentality that humans are supposed to preserve species as they are today, or even restore them to some older state: if we interfere with evolution, why should it always be to preserve species, and not to cull some of them?

Completely agree. Today there are even campaigning groups that are trying to prevent or ban experiments on certain animals. We should be as much on the watch against animal or nature activists as we are on terrorists.

Charles Nydorf said...

Your second point is one of my main reasons for being a preservationist. Chimpanzees are part of our history and we can learn much more from them if they are allowed to flourish.

AK said...

To me, the most cogent argument it that their intelligence is high enough, and similar enough to ours, that they should be protected from domestication to protect that (wild) intelligence.

AFAIK domestication is generally thought to have involved a reduction in average intelligence of the species involved.

Andrew Lancaster said...

I do not want to defend the article, but it is interesting to me as someone interested in philosophy to see Dienekes and his correspondents struggling to come up with many good reasons to be concerned about chimpanzees apart from self interested research.

How about this one: living well means doing beautiful things, and not ugly things, and we aim to live well.

Being nice to animals when you can, avoiding cruelty when possible, is something good to do, whereas being deliberately cruel to animals is something everyone recognizes as something unattractive to healthy people. Secondly, living in a world with animals like chimpanzees is simply nicer than living in one without them.

When people recognize the things they like, and things that they find awful, they are also seeing good things to aim and not to aim at. They do not need to come up with arguments about economic or scientific benefits, which are really just an added bonus. --Or so it seems to me.

c31d4574-f5b5-11e0-ab21-000bcdcb5194 said...

So do you see no point in conservation efforts generally? If it is man's natural inclination to see wilderness as only something to be used for agriculture or to be paved over, so be it?

I think in a macro sense, responsible management of global ecosystems is key for man's survival. If all we have is concrete, corn, and cows, our ecosystem will be quite fragile.

Greengerg said...

Just because species have come and gone in the past, seems a weak excuse to do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Apes are rare to begin with, and chimpanzees are fascinating creatures, so preventing their extinction is a valuable thing in and of itself, aside from any benefit to human research. The world is more interesting with wild chimps in it.

Second, are chimps sentient and self-aware? I don't believe this has been disproven. A very good argument can be made that imprisoning another sentient being and forcing it to perform for our amusement is uncivilized and unworthy of our cultural and intellectual destiny. A sentient pet is a slave, no?

Dienekes said...

Apes are rare to begin with, and chimpanzees are fascinating creatures, so preventing their extinction is a valuable thing in and of itself, aside from any benefit to human research.

Well, if they are "fascinating creatures" then they are of use to humans because they "fascinate us". Ultimately, it is human interests that determine whether we want a species to survive or not. I find lions to be fascinating, but I am not particularly distressed that there are no longer any of them roaming the Greek countryside. I find Neandertals to be even more fascinating, and I am not losing any sleep that they have gone extinct.

I want chimps to survive but I simply don't see how keeping them as pets or using them on TV has any influence on the matter. It is ridiculous to think that if chimps disappear from entertainment or peoples' homes people will start doing more to help preserve them. More likely that they will forget that chimps even exist. I am sure there are many monkey species that are endangered, but I, and 99.9% of people outside the field of biology can't tell two monkey species apart let alone know anything about which ones are likely to go extinct.

Second, are chimps sentient and self-aware? I don't believe this has been disproven. A very good argument can be made that imprisoning another sentient being and forcing it to perform for our amusement is uncivilized and unworthy of our cultural and intellectual destiny. A sentient pet is a slave, no?

It could be well argued that chimps born in the West and not part of a chimp society can't survive on their own. Would it be more ethical to dump such chimps in Africa and hope they make it? Or, would it be more ethical to forbid them from reproducing? Perhaps they will be more distressed if they don't get laid and have children.

So, I don't really see a reason to change the status quo.

princenuadha said...

" And, some species go because of a new predator that they can't cope with, e.g., man."

I see your point. It's not by natural law that we should avoid the extinction of species. Animals kill each other, they can cause another species extinction, and they can even destroy a whole ecosystem. Hell, I'm sure they could even cause their own destruction. So humans aren't actually unique for our destructive habits, like we sometimes want to think we are. (It's very ironic when the conservationists call on us to treat animals as if they were equal to us, but at the same time holding humans as the only accountable species)

I think the reason people want to save cerain species is because we simply like having them around. We also know what life and death is so we don't want them to die. I'm not sure that i'd really want to live in a world where we didn't care about our environment apart from the resources we can get from it.

But one thing is certain, we have to practice self restraint for the survival of our own species and most the planets species. If we wanted to we could gave nuked our planet ending most life.

terryt said...

"I think in a macro sense, responsible management of global ecosystems is key for man's survival. If all we have is concrete, corn, and cows, our ecosystem will be quite fragile".

I remember in ecology lectures that diverse ecosystems tend to be more stable, but that may simply reflect the alternative: that stability increases diversity.

"I think the reason people want to save cerain species is because we simply like having them around".

That is why I'm doing my best for several 'threatened species' where I live.

Pascvaks said...

This is an area where everyone is 'right' and can be, at the same time, 'wrong' or 'missing the key point'. It has an awful lot to do with the generalization true of most things, 'where one stands governs what one sees'. Suggestion, take a step back, far back, go macro for a minute, really macro. There is a problem, right? Intuitively, we think that the more diverse the global ecosystem the better it likely is (well many do, right?). If we generally agree on that point, isn't the BIG problem more one of sustainable ecosystems for everyone and everything? Aren't we rather far from anything that resembles that picture? I get the feeling that the people of the world today aren't going to think of much more than their own survival and, consequently, aren't going to set up sustainable ecosystems (other than a mini-sized refuge here and there) that come close to being what is needed to sustain and foster other species. Ergo - this is all a bunch of noise, it won't get better, it will only get worse; no one's willing to pay the price or make the space (let's say a park on each continent the size of that continent) so it won't happen.

Unless.. we have another IceAge kick in in the next few days, or a pandemic that kills off about 98% of the human population; I guess there's always hope. But I find it difficult to hope people will make room for anyone or anything except themselves, and even then, only if you're a member of their 'tribe'. (Maybe?;-)