March 13, 2008 — -- From CareerBuilder commercials to "Lancelot Link," a sitcom following the hijinks of a 1970s psychedelic detective agency, Hollywood has employed primates, particularly chimps, for years to make audiences laugh.
But according to conservationists, those smiles come with a dark side.
Constantly using chimps for laughs leads the TV- and movie-viewing public to mistakenly believe that the animals aren't an endangered species, a group of scientists that includes Jane Goodall said this week in Science.
"My gut feeling is that there is some level of public trust in what's allowed and what's not. When you go to the grocery store, food is FDA approved. Nothing that you consume is going to be bad for your health," said Kristen Lukas, curator of conservation and science at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and a co-author of the paper. "I think there's that similar public trust that if you see something like this on TV, how bad could it be? If chimps are endangered, how could they be used this way?"
In 2005 and 2006, two separate studies conducted by two different conservation organizations found the same thing: Visitors were more likely to believe that gorillas and orangutans were endangered than chimps. When asked why, the visitors all pointed to the use of chimps in the media.
In 2005, visitors to the Regenstein Center for African Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago were surveyed to select the great ape species -- chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans -- that were considered endangered. The survey labeled the species to avoid confusion.
The results: 95 percent thought gorillas were endangered, 91 percent thought orangutans were endangered, but only 66 percent believed that chimpanzees were endangered.
When informed that chimps were endangered, 35 percent of the respondents said that they didn't think chimpanzees were endangered because of their common portrayal in TV, movies and commercials.
In 2006, a similar study was repeated at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa in Des Moines with strikingly similar results. In this survey, 72 percent of respondents thought chimps were endangered compared to gorillas (94 percent) and orangutans (92 percent).
"This is the first evidence that links the inappropriate use of chimps in the media with these wider conservation attitudes that people hold about chimps in general," said Steve Ross, the lead author of the paper and the supervisor of behavioral and cognitive research at the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Ross said that he wasn't surprised by the two surveys' findings.
"We long suspected this inappropriate portrayal of chimps had this effect. ... These results really bear that out," he said. "This is a great opportunity ... for scientists to use data to affect policy or popular perceptions."
"These data can be very important in raising awareness of the issues and organizations that might consider this a viable advertising campaign -- these types of campaigns have costs. You're affecting people's conservation attitudes."
Lukas believes that because chimpanzees look so similar to humans, people relate more on a visceral level to them than other primates.
"There is something that people find just humorous when they see chimps portrayed this way," Lukas said. "Orangutans look so different. With gorillas, people are more afraid of them because they're so large and have that 'King Kong' thing going for them. Chimps are more vulnerable when it comes to this kind of messaging."
Several animal actor agencies were unable to comment by deadline.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are currently at least 172,000 chimpanzees, 49,000 orangutans and more than 100,000 gorillas in the wild.