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Courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo

Chimps form strong family bonds that are severed when young chimps are used as actors. 

Funny chimps on TV are no laughing matter

by Lauren Hise
Jan 31, 2012


Chimps that are separated from their mothers at an early age can have trouble socializing later in life when their acting careers are over.


Courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo.

The chimps shown on TV are often very young, not yet at their full size or strength so they are easier to manage.

CareerBuilder is standing behind their controversial ad featuring business-suited chimps, scheduled to air during the Super Bowl this Sunday.

Animal advocates are speaking out, saying that those 30 seconds of viewer smiles can harm our closest primate relatives by severing them from maternal care, giving false perceptions about chimps as pets and undermining conservation efforts.

The chimps in the ad represent annoying co-workers whose pranks sabotage their colleagues' efforts. One way out and up is to post a resume and find a new job through the CareerBuilder website, the ad suggests. 

“CareerBuilder supports the fair and humane treatment of all animals,” noted the Chicago-based job search site in a statement. “During the production of our ad, we followed the strictest guidelines to ensure our chimpanzee stars were treated well and not harmed in any way. We hired top trainers known to provide the highest standard of care for their animals. We also had a member of animal rights group, the American Humane Association, on set during the entire filming to ensure the chimpanzees were treated with respect. This was very important to us.”

CareerBuilder has no plans to pull the ad, according to company spokesperson Jennifer Grasz. “Yes, our ad will run in the Super Bowl.”

Experts are saying that the issue involves more than following care guidelines on sets, however.

“American Humane Association realizes that there are complex issues regarding the use of all wild animals, including primates, in filmed media and we endeavor to educate producers on these issues,” said Jone Bouman, director of communications for the American Humane Association’s Film & TV Unit. “However, while the animals are on the set, we ensure that they receive a very high standard of care and that no cruelty is ever used to accomplish a performance.”

“We would argue that using chimps in this way is frivolous and impacts conservation,” said Kathleen Conlee, senior director for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States.

Recent studies, some conducted by the Lincoln Park Zoo, have shown that the prankster/humanlike portrayal of chimps leads people to form the wrong ideas about the primates, such as that they might make good pets, said Dr. Steve Ross, assistant director at the Lester Fisher center for the study and conservation of apes at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Due to their very strong likeness to humans, Conlee said, “chimpanzees are kind of the go-to species of primate.”

In reality, the chimps that people usually see in commercials, such as the CareerBuilder ad, are often very young, having not yet reached their full-size and strength, which would make them difficult to manage. 

“People are often surprised by their size,” said Ross. “When you see them in ads, they are still youngsters.”

While their young age makes chimp actors easier to manage, the early separation from their mothers can cause lifelong damage, Ross said. Chimps, much like humans, have very close ties within their families, staying with their mothers for years.

“When people breed and raise chimps to be pets or performers, those ties are severed very early,” Ross said.

As a result, chimps that are turned over to sanctuaries after their short showbiz careers often have trouble connecting.

“Chimpanzees have certain difficulties with becoming socialized,” said Conlee, who has had firsthand experience working with chimps at a sanctuary. “They present a different kind of challenge.”

While skilled sanctuaries are able to offer the kind of tools and resources that the animals need to adjust, Conlee said, the care is very expensive and time-consuming. The problem is only worsened by the use of chimps on TV. Studies have also shown causes people to not classify the primates as the endangered species they are.

Interestingly, however, the chimps people see on TV aren’t technically endangered. According to Conlee, chimps are the only animals in the United States to be split-listed: endangered in the wild and threatened in captivity. "Threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered and endangered means a species is likely to become extinct. 

Because they don’t carry the endangered label in captivity, those chimps don't carry the same protection, leaving their welfare in danger. The Humane Society sent a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last October in hopes of having this classification changed. The final decision is still pending.

“Different points resonate to different people,” said Ross, who hopes that people will understand that this issue affects both the welfare of chimps in captivity and in the wild.

While Ross has faith that the animals were well cared for during the few hours they were on set and under the watchful eye of the American Humane Association, he said he is more concerned about their treatment off camera.

“I think it’s a pretty weak and kind of sad response,” Ross said of CareerBuilder. He said he believes that the company should pull the ad since it is the way that chimps are portrayed that is causing the problem.

When asked how he responds to people who see little difference between zoo captivity and the captivity of chimps in show business, Ross said, he wasn’t arguing against captivity but about standards of care.

“They’re both captive environments,” Ross said. “But, they couldn’t be more different in terms of care.”