Chimpanzees are not pets, despite what the social media tells you

Chimpanzees are not pets, despite what the social media tells you

Trade in wild chimpanzees, including their meat and body parts, is illegal. And yet, social media influencers and companies still profit from sharing “cute” pictures and videos of chimpanzees and other primates poached in the wild. All the while, sanctuaries around the world continue to receive orphaned victims of this illegal trade.

As a comparative psychologist studying the behavior and emotions of great apes, I have worked with chimpanzees in the wild and in captivity. Currently, I work at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, an animal sanctuary in Zambia. Over the past 40 years, Chimfunshi has provided a sanctuary for over 100 chimpanzees rescued from the pet and bushmeat trade.

In May 2023, Chimfunshi welcomed three new rescuers. Following their rehabilitation, Abbie, Francis and Vanessa* will be joined by a small community of eight other chimps who were rescued from similar situations in 2018.

Chimpanzees are not native to Zambia. So, why do these animals end up in these conditions, and how can we help keep them in their wild homes where they are?

John (left) and Aimi, two chimpanzees rescued in 2018, are about to welcome three new arrivals to Chimfunshi.
Jake Brooker

The chimpanzee trade

Chimpanzees live in sub-Saharan Africa, in habitats ranging from savannah-woodland mosaics to rainforests. These habitats on which chimpanzees depend are threatened by the expansion of agricultural activities, alongside the encroachment of logging, mining and oil industries.

Fragmentation of chimpanzee habitats makes it easier for poachers to hunt them. Chimpanzees are currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Chimfunshi is home to chimpanzees stolen from the wild and sold for up to US$10,000 (£7,900). Before being rescued, some of the Chimfunshi chimpanzees were forced to sift through tourists (almost drowned in the process) and smoke cigarettes. One was even taught how to rub foreheads on circus stages in front of families.

In these cases, they are in an environment that is unusual for their type. Chimpanzees’ natural instincts are restrained by chains or harsh training to keep them on their best behavior in public or tourist environments. Often, “pet” chimpanzees are unable to communicate with their own kind, which prevents these social animals from recognizing themselves.

María Laura Cordonet Castagneto, a researcher at the University of Girona with whom I have worked in Chimfunshi, told me that one nine-year-old child cannot even play or groom himself, as he was not raised among other chimps. Part of this chimp’s rehabilitation is helping him learn the important social behavior of observing and engaging with his new peers.

Many Chimfunshi rescuers are physically or emotionally scarred by beatings by their former captors to keep them disciplined. Many will have watched their mothers and peers try to protect them from capture, and slaughtered in the process.

Like most monkeys kept in human homes or used in the entertainment industry, chimpanzees quickly lose their appeal as “pets” as they grow older. Their canines grow, become uncontrollably strong and their behavior is erratic. For every chimp kept, many more are abandoned or killed when they can no longer be managed.

Isaac, a baby chimpanzee in one of the great Chimfunshi forests.
Jake Brooker

It’s not very good

For a chimpanzee to dress up in human clothes, play the piano, ride a skateboard or hang out with tourists paying US$700 (£560) for a ten-minute session requires a lot of suffering. It’s the brutal truth that “good” TikTok videos and Instagram reels can be ignored.

Such content is pushed onto our newsfeeds virally, whether the animal is a family dog ​​or a creature poached from the wild. Research has found that showing wild animals in human contexts can increase a viewer’s desire to buy an exotic pet.

But social media companies are ignoring this problem because this type of content drives great engagement online. The Instagram account of Limbani, a chimpanzee living in Miami, has nearly 800,000 followers and a 1.5% engagement rate (a measure of how actively your audience engages with content). To put this into context, Kim Kardashian’s Instagram account has an engagement rate of about 0.65%.

What can be done?

We can all individually make choices about the future we want to support. Only sharing online content that is responsible for wildlife in their natural habitats is another option. But you can take a more active role in wildlife conservation by preventing inappropriate tourism activities.

However, the long-term survival of endangered species can only be ensured through systemic change in the way we perceive and treat nature. First and foremost, we need to start by making it undesirable to have wild animals as pets.

Steps have been taken in recent years to reduce and prevent the trade in exotic animals. More than 50 countries have banned (or announced an impending ban) the use of wild animals in circuses. And the UK government has put forward proposals to finally outlaw pet ownership by 2024.

Read more: Putting primates on screen fuels the illegal pet trade

Even Hollywood – which has a long history of using trained monkeys or monkey “actors” – is switching to using computer-generated imagery to portray primates on screen. The social media must catch up, and understand that holding exotic animals in human conditions shows a grizzly and exploitative industry – and thus shows animal abuse.

Chimpanzees are our closest relatives. They think, feel and have complex social needs. They live in their wild homes where they can be themselves. Primates are not pets.

*Names of new Chimfunshi rescuers have been changed to protect the privacy of the chimpanzees and rescuers.

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