Why are chimpanzees so fascinating to us? Is it because they are so much like us, sharing 98 percent of our DNA? Does this cause people to minimize their wildness? Or is it the reason we forget entirely that they are inherently wild animals? Does our propensity to anthropomorphize diminish our respect for these majestic primates?
According to a 2008 study published in the journal Science, it does. The results of that study indicated that the frequency with which we see chimpanzees in movies, TV, and commercials leads the general public to believe that chimps are not endangered. In fact, they are listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red list. Chimpanzees are already extinct in 4 of the 25 countries in their natural range. Since the 20th century, the estimated chimpanzee population in the wild has been reduced by a staggering 70-80 percent.
Chimpanzees in captivity however, are another story. More than 2000 chimps live in captivity right here in the US. Half of those are in biomedical research and about a quarter of them live in sanctuaries. Only 12 percent of chimps living in the US live in AZA accredited zoos. That leaves nearly 250 chimps in unaccredited facilities or private ownership. In fact, there are over 100 chimps documented as private pets in the US.
How did we get to this point? While the IUCN may list chimps as endangered, it has no recourse for individual countries. Each country makes their own list of endangered species that are protected by their local laws. Chimps in the wild are threatened by habitat destruction and bush meat consumption, but it is all too easy to point the finger at a country halfway across the world. We can and should support these far away places. The Oakland Zoo has made a huge impact by supporting the Budongo Snare Removal Project.
However, there are still 2000 chimpanzees in the US, and they didn’t get here by accident. Chimpanzees are the only species that our own government has double listed in our endangered species laws. This is confusing because the United States government classifies WILD chimps as “endangered” and CAPTIVE chimps as “threatened.” This means captive chimps are not afforded the same protection under federal law that every other endangered species receives. Therefore, private breeders are selling chimps to unsuspecting families as pets. Chimps are dressed up in clothes for our entertainment in movies and TV. Because chimpanzees are portrayed this way, many people lack the understanding and appreciation for one of the world’s most intelligent animals.
As an AZA accredited zoo, the Oakland Zoo participate s in the Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan (SSP). Recently, the chair of the Chimp SSP began an ambitious project to document ALL chimpanzees living in the US and educate the public about their plight, not only in the wild, but here in our own country. The website, www.chimpcare.org, is not only educational, but gives us, as consumers the power to make choices in our daily lives that will affect how chimps are treated here, in our own backyards. Chimpanzees are not just hairy people; they are majestic, magnificent animals that deserve dignity and respect.