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#CruelNotCute - Primates on Social Media


4 March 2021 News
#CruelNotCute - Primates on Social Media Ian Redmond OBE

Social media can be a great place to share your love of primates and learn about all the wonderful people who are working tirelessly to help them. There are also some extremely harmful images of primates on social media, and it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between the two. 

This guide aims to help you know what is ok to share, and what you should do if you identify this harmful imagery. Of course there are many nuances surrounding this topic, but we have tried to explore these in an accessible fashion. 

 

What sort of images of primates are good to like or share? 

  • Primates in their natural habitat at a safe distance from any humans. 
  • Primates performing natural behaviours.
  • A person observing wild primates from a distance over 7m, whilst wearing a mask. Masks are particularly important with great apes who are our closest cousins (e.g. gorillas, chimpanzees, or orangutans).
  • Conservation efforts relating to primates. 

Which images of primates are harmful to like or share? 

  • Primates wearing clothes. 
  • Pet primates and/or primates in people’s homes. 
  • Primates interacting with other species e.g. tiger cubs.
  • Primates doing the ‘fear grimace’ - they are not smiling! 
  • Primates interacting with/being touched by humans that aren’t their carers in a reputable sanctuary. 

 

What is the truth behind the seemingly cute, but harmful images? 

The captive primates you see in these images are often illegally captured from the wild for their use as photo props, in roadside zoos or fake sanctuaries, or for the pet trade (Osterberg & Nekaris 2015; LaFleur et al. 2019; Norconk et al. 2019). 

Adults are often killed to obtain these baby primates, either as “collateral damage” when defending their babies or to sell as bushmeat. It is estimated that in chimpanzees up to 10 adults are killed to obtain one baby Doug Cress (Great Ape Survival Partnership). 

When a female primate is killed, her potential for more babies, and her babies’ future offspring and so on is taken away. This is very harmful as many primate species are endangered or vulnerable to extinction. In slow-reproducing species such as great apes, each individual taken out of the population has a huge impact on the population’s stability. 

If they are not taken from the wild, the primates are often obtained from cruel breeders with conditions comparable to puppy mills. 

Once the baby primates are taken, they often have their teeth removed to prevent them from injuring people when biting. Then, once they are too large or strong to be handled safely, they are either killed, put in warehouses with terrible conditions, or sold as research subjects (Agoramoorthy & Hsu 2005; Reuter & Schaefer 2016).

Pet/photo prop/roadside zoo primates are often malnourished, kept without members of their own species, and suffer from mental illnesses such as PTSD, depression, and severe anxiety due to their mistreatment (Wild Futures)

On top of all of this, being too close to primates either in the wild or in captivity makes it easy for zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 to pass between humans and primates. Respiratory infections can be extremely dangerous for species such as chimpanzees. By getting too close to an ape and/or not wearing a mask, you could kill them just from passing on a common cold (Dunay et al. 2018)

 

Why is it harmful for someone to hold or touch a primate?

As we mentioned earlier, touching primates is physically dangerous and poses the risk of zoonotic diseases passing from the primate to you, or from you to the primate. Multiple people have been seriously injured from supposedly tame pet primates, just Google “pet chimpanzee attacks owner” for examples if you are curious. Of course these attacks are the result of many years of cruel treatment, not due to any inherent violence in primates. 

Studies have also shown that seeing primates being held by humans or as pets makes people less likely to think that they are endangered and need help, which can undermine conservation efforts (Ross et al. 2008; Schroepfer et al. 2011; Leighty et al. 2015, Morrow et al. 2017; Aldrich 2018).

As we know, many of these primates are taken from the wild and kept in cruel conditions, and glorifying these images can perpetuate the practices of trading and keeping of primates in these conditions. The seemingly cute images can also make people think that primates make appropriate pets, and that it is ok to use primates as a photo prop. 

 

Potential grey areas explained. 

What about sanctuaries who have to care for orphaned primates? 

Some reputable sanctuaries will post pictures of the day to day lives of their orphans, including them interacting with their surrogate carers. 

Examples of reputable sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres whose imagery may include carers with rescued primates and are fine to follow include: Lola Ya Bonobo, Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection (LCRP), Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation, IPPL Summerville, South Carolina, and Senkwekwe Centre in Virunga National Park, DRC.

Where possible, sanctuary team members will be wearing uniforms and generally will not be showing the primates they care for using things like smart phones. They will never be seen teasing individuals, as we see on many of the negative sites.


How can I lessen my negative impact when sharing images from a reputable sanctuary? 

Sometimes you might want to share the amazing work these sanctuaries are doing, or just enjoy cute baby primates guilt free! When sharing images of primates in human settings or being touched by humans, it is good to include a disclaimer to avoid the images being taken out of context. 

A good example of a disclaimer is one that Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection (LCRP) uses under their posts. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: **Chimpanzees are not and should not be pets or forced to live with humans.** The chimpanzee orphans at LCRP's sanctuary in West Africa are victims of the bushmeat and illegal pet trade. Their mothers were tragically killed by poachers and require around the clock care. Thanks to the dedicated caregivers and staff, the orphans are being rehabilitated so that they will be able to thrive with others in a natural and safe environment when they’re older. Please support LCRP’s efforts to rescue chimpanzees in need and to keep wild chimps wild. 

This note can easily be adapted to fit the specific sanctuary you are highlighting. 

If you do not have space for all of this text, for example you are sharing a post to your story,  consider using the hashtag #NotAPet or #PrimatesAreNotPets, or simply write “primates are not and never should be pets”. 

 

How is it ok for some people to touch primates but not others? 

Surrogate carers in a sanctuary: 

Some orphaned primates need 24/7 care from humans who act as their surrogate mothers, but these humans must be experts and part of a reputable sanctuary. Orphaned primates still need a mother’s love and care, and surrogate human carers are often the best or only alternative to their real mother. 

In terms of zoonotic diseases, these carers living in remote areas will be in the same “bubble” as the primates so the disease risk is low, even when the carers are not wearing a mask. Reputable sanctuaries will have health/quarantine requirements for any visitors or volunteers and for their team members. 

Veterinarians performing a necessary procedure or check up:

Sometimes a primate will need veterinary care, and the vet will take a picture of the procedure. In a similar vein, people may share pictures of sedated primates during translocation or rescue efforts. 

Historical images of researchers: 

There are historical images of some famous researchers and presenters coming in close contact with wild primates before we were aware of the of zoonotic disease risk and other issues surrounding our close contact with primates. 

 

What should I do if I see a harmful post? 

Commenting 

The negative of commenting on harmful posts is that it increases their engagement statistics, meaning the social media site may boost them further. However, if all of the top comments of a post are people admonishing it for animal cruelty then other people will be less likely to like and share it. Because of this, we believe it is more important to educate other people than to avoid boosting the post (especially as a lot of these posts already have huge engagement). 

When on a social media site that allows links in comments (e.g. Twitter, YouTube or Facebook) you can link to this article under your comment, to give a full overview of what you are talking about and hopefully educate more people. 

If you are on a site that does not allow links in comments, you can tag the Ape Alliance page. On Instagram our handle is @ApeAlliance. 

We have written some example comments but you can write your own or adapt them to the image you are commenting on. 

Primates aren’t appropriate pets - they belong in the wild or in reputable sanctuaries where they can perform natural behaviours. Primates kept as pets can suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety. Primates are highly social and need to be with their own species; to keep them from their own kind is devastating for their psychological well being. #CruelNotCute

(For when a primate appears to be smiling): This animal isn’t smiling, this is a grimace indicating distress and fear. #CruelNotCute

(If there is a photo of someone too close to a primate and they’re not wearing a mask etc)- By being in this close proximity to a primate, you are risking transmitting zoonotic diseases to the primate which can be extremely dangerous. #CruelNotCute

By sharing/liking these pictures you are condemning these primates to a life of neglect and suffering. It is cruel to keep a primate in these conditions. #CruelNotCute

 

Reporting 

Once you have commented on the post, make sure to report it to the social media platform. This can often be frustrating as the reports come back unsuccessful, but it is still worth doing as a high volume of reports on a single post or account is more likely to lead to change. 

We have posted guides on how to report harmful images on our social media accounts. 

 

What is being done to stop all of this? 

Many organisations, both within and outside the Ape Alliance are fighting to educate the public, lobby governments and businesses, and change social media platforms’ policies on animal cruelty. 

Here is a list of links to other organisations’ campaigns for if you would like to explore this topic further: 

 

References 

Agoramoorthy G, Hsu MJ (2005) Use of nonhuman primates in entertainment in Southeast Asia. J Appl Anim Welf Sci 8:141–149. doi: 10.1207/s15327604jaws0802_6

Aldrich BC (2018) The Use of Primate “Actors” in Feature Films 1990–2013. Anthrozoos 31:5–21. doi: 10.1080/08927936.2018.1406197

Dunay E, Apakupakul K, Leard S, et al (2018) Pathogen Transmission from Humans to Great Apes is a Growing Threat to Primate Conservation. Ecohealth 15:148–162

Lafleur M, Clarke TA, Reuter KE, et al (2019) Illegal Trade of Wild-Captured Lemur catta within Madagascar. Folia Primatol 90:199–214. doi: 10.1159/000496970

Leighty KA, Valuska AJ, Grand AP, et al (2015) Impact of visual context on public perceptions of non-human primate performers. PLoS One 10:e0118487. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0118487

Morrow KS, Jameson KA, Trinidad JS (2017) Primates in Film. In: The International Encyclopedia of Primatology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, USA, pp 1–12

Norconk MA, Atsalis S, Tully G, et al (2020) Reducing the primate pet trade: Actions for primatologists. Am J Primatol 82:e23079. doi: 10.1002/ajp.23079

Osterberg, P & Nekaris a (2015) The Use of Animals as Photo Props to Attract Tourists in Thailand: A Case Study of the Slow Loris (Nycticebus spp.). TRAFFIC Bull 27:13–18

Reuter KE, Schaefer MS (2016) Captive Conditions of Pet Lemurs in Madagascar. Folia Primatol 87:48–63. doi: 10.1159/000444582

Ross SR, Lukas KE, Lonsdorf E V., et al (2008) Science priorities: Inappropriate use and portrayal of chimpanzees. Science (80-. ). 319:1487

RSPCA, Wild Futures (2012) Primates as Pets: Is there a case for regulation? 1–29

Schroepfer KK, Rosati AG, Chartrand T, Hare B (2011) Use of “entertainment” chimpanzees in commercials distorts public perception regarding their conservation status. PLoS One 6:e26048. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026048

 

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