Talk to any zoo keeper about great apes and you may see them cringe substantially when it comes to two topics. The first topic has to do with the discernment between monkeys and apes. We cringe when people reference apes as monkeys. Although both groups fall into the taxonomic order of primates, there are more differences than similarities between monkeys and apes. The most obvious morphological difference is that monkeys have tails and apes do not. But from an intellectual standpoint, the differences are substantial…not to say that monkeys are not intelligent, but apes are, by comparison, super intelligent. Apes rely more on vision than scent for survival. Apes create tools and are capable of learning and using language. They are complex problem solvers.
Great apes belong to the family Hominidae, which includes humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, while gibbons and siamangs are lesser apes. If you find this classification disconcerting, I do not mean to offend anyone. Perhaps if you read Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, you will find the concept a little less threatening. In the meantime, when you visit zoos, please reference the above mentioned animals as apes, not monkeys. It is a good way to show reverence and acknowledge the importance of sharing the planet by having a greater understanding of all the creatures that live upon it.
The second cringe worthy topic is one of far greater concern and perpetually burdens the heart and mind of those of us who advocate for wildlife in general and apes in particular. That topic is apes in entertainment, particularly chimpanzees. It seems that as soon as activists have gotten one company to understand the negative impact of the use of chimpanzees in entertainment and stop the practice, another offender emerges.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classify chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) as Endangered due to high levels of exploitation, loss of habitat and habitat quality due to expanding human activities. When people see chimpanzees in entertainment, it undercuts an accurate perception of realizing that this species is endangered.
I cannot be more blunt or impassioned about this when I ask everyone reading this to boycott any product or service that uses chimpanzees for advertising or entertainment. If you cannot boycott the product or service, please take time to write the offending organization to let them know you wish for the practice to stop. The following story is one of hundreds of examples as to why I make this plea.
Kendall chimp was born on May 31, 1999 at a facility that breeds chimps to be used in entertainment. He was hand-raised and later sold to Birds and Animals Unlimited, an organization that trains a variety of animals, including chimpanzees, for use in movies, television, and live animal shows. Some may remember him as the chimp that selected the winning number for Pepsi’s Billion Dollar Sweepstakes. He even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. When Kendall was about seven, his trainers noticed that he was beginning to challenge them when they took him out to do his shows. They realized that if he was beginning to challenge those he knew best, there was increased risk to audience members. Chimps are, pound for pound, about seven times stronger than a person. So, a 60 pound chimp could potentially seriously injure an audience member. In fact, no monkey or ape makes for a good pet.
Kendall was retired from shows and his care began to fall by the wayside. He was spending his days in a small holding area with limited stimulation, bedding, and of course, no other chimpanzees. Chimpanzees live in troops in the wild. Social structure and bonds are as important to them as they are to humans. Chimpanzees form social communities of 5 to 150 animals in the wild. An isolated life for a chimpanzee is a miserable existence.
In 2006, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan obtained and placed Kendall at the North Carolina Zoo (an AZA accredited institution), with the hope that he could be integrated into a group with 13 other chimps. From there, the dedicated keepers began the process of introducing Kendall to members of the troops at the NC Zoo. The process has taken years and he has made great strides in learning natural chimpanzee behavior. Kendall’s story has a happy ending but he is only one of so many chimpanzees that have been exploited for entertainment and science. Kendall’s story represents what I hope to be an ongoing positive story of the environment as it pertains to wildlife stewardship for all apes.