Appreciating the Real Jobs Chimpanzees Have

Written by Mallory Mos, JGI Canada Youth Leadership Council Correspondent. Waterloo, Ontario.

Chimpanzees aren’t the only primates with jobs.  They mother and allomother (a form of non-maternal infant care), have distinct hunting roles (“drivers” keep prey running in certain directions without intending to catch them, “blockers” are stationed at the bottom of trees and will climb up to block prey, “chasers” rapidly follow prey, and finally, “ambushers” expertly carry out ambuscades by concealing their positions before making their move), they lead entire troops to fruit patches (chimpanzees are omnivorous) and away from danger (chimpanzees at Taï and Lopé National Park experience significant levels of predation by leopards).  Chimpanzee jobs most often determine whether troop members will live or die; yet media portrayals of chimps often deliberately diminish their intellect to get a laugh out of the audience.

CareerBuilder started airing popular Superbowl adverts in 2005 that exploit and undermine the remarkably complex behaviors of chimpanzees.  Take for instance, CareerBuilder’s 2011 Super Bowl Ad where two cars full of business-suit wearing chimps pull up so closely to a man’s car, that he is sandwiched in between them.  The man is, as the narrator suggests, “Stuck between a bad job and a hard place…”

It seems simple: make people laugh about their tough situation and show them a way to get out of it.  But consumer companies need to recognize the incredible scope of their impact.  One recent study, published in PLoS One in 2011, found that “respondents seeing images in which chimpanzees are shown in typically human settings (such as an office space) were more likely to perceive wild populations as being stable and healthy compared to those seeing chimpanzees in other contexts.”  Not only did CareerBuilder’s 2011 Superbowl ad transform knuckle-walking, pant hoots (natural vocalizations), and overall ‘chimpness’ into something that looked “stupid,” exploiting these very same chimps by forcing them into suits and away from their potential to live out a natural life, but CareerBuilder also diverted the conversation away from chimpanzee conservation, and failed to address their role in it.  Because chimpanzee behaviour changes dramatically at puberty, only infant and young juvenile chimpanzees can be controlled in the making of entertainment adverts.  Sadly, the very first chimps that were used in CareerBuilder ads from 2005 all ended up at Center for Great Apes sanctuary.

The center’s founder, Patti Ragan, wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in 2011: “Accredited zoos won’t usually accept performing or human-raised chimpanzees because they are difficult to mix with the zoos’ more naturally behaving groups. Many of these former ‘stars’ end up in roadside zoos, backyard cages or breeder compounds. Those lucky enough to end up in an established sanctuary have to be supported for the rest of their lives by donations from people who don’t know them, but care about them.”

The Jane Goodall Institute started a petition last year  that asked not to use real chimpanzees in advertisements, and they heard us. CareerBuilder has not said that they will stop using chimps in future ads, but we will not be seeing any during the Superbowl this year, which is a step in the right direction. The largest online employment website in the United States has taken one step closer to acknowledging their impact on the environment.

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