Exploring Social Media’s Role in Primate Protection

March 21, 2024

Have you seen a primate on social media lately? How did it make you feel?  

For years, Lincoln Park Zoo has been at the forefront of research exploring how images of primates have affected the way people feel about them. Images of primates in unnatural settings, such as alongside people, our work has shown, make the conservation of chimpanzees, gorillas, lorises, and similar animals more challenging.

It’s one of the reasons we have long advocated that people “pause” before they post certain images on social media. It is our hope that people will pause, consider, and then abstain from sharing images that may be harmful. Posting pictures of primates in human settings feeds misconceptions about these animals and how people should behave around them. The images also influence people to want them as pets, fueling the illegal pet trade. 

We continue to refine and improve our knowledge on this topic. Late last year, Conservation Biology published another study that included input from our team. The authors, including Lincoln Park Zoo’s Animal Welfare Science Program Director Katie Cronin, Ph.D., wanted to find out about the effect of adding captions to such images.   

Almost everyone uses social media—it’s a good way for scientists to inspire interest in their work. And animal protection organizations post photos with themselves and animal subjects all the time. Recent data has shown that many primate caretakers in zoos believe it’s fine to post images of themselves with their animal charges—as long as captions are included to explain exactly what is going on.

“Often people sharing images will attach a responsible caption indicating that the primate in the picture is not a pet, hoping that this protects against the harmful impacts the photo can have,” Cronin says.” We’ve wondered whether this is effective on social media where images capture attention far more than text. We wanted to test the effects of captions on viewer perceptions of the primates so that people can make responsible decisions when sharing photos in the future.” 

So, this study wanted to address a specific issue. If a researcher or animal caretaker posts an image of herself with a primate such as a gorilla or loris, and clearly notes that this was a scientific context, would that still result in unwanted attitudes towards the animal?  

 The Method 

 The study worked like this: Four mock Instagram posts were created. Two had an image of a researcher looking at a mountain gorilla in nearby foliage. One image had the caption, “Me with a mountain gorilla,” and the other used language indicating that the person was observing the gorilla as part of research. “All animals are observed safely and humanely for research with the proper research and training,” the post concluded.

social media posts for study

Two other images showed a slender loris being held in someone’s gloved hand. One said, “Me with my research subject,” while the other added, “Being a primatologist is a dream job,” and had a similar disclaimer. It referenced handling instead of observing.  

This wording was modeled off the language that real-life scientists have posted on social media. That type of language happens to be in line with recent recommendations made by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Primate Specialist Group in an attempt to protect against harmful perceptions generated by images.  

The mock posts were shown to about 3,000 people recruited through a crowdsourcing platform. Viewers weren’t aware of the goal of the study. Each person viewed one post, then answered 12 statements about their perception of the image using a scale (strongly agree to strongly disagree) to measure how they felt about primate conservation and how interested they might be in owning one as a pet. Then the results were analyzed.  

The Results 

The responses given by participants indicated that they did read the captions, as they understood that wildlife research was being depicted when that information was in the caption. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t seem to make a difference in their responses about their own desire to own primates as pets.  

While most people agreed the gorilla and loris were endangered, a majority of them also agreed they would seek out an opportunity to interact with a primate, that they’d like one as a pet, and that it would make a good pet. In fact, about 60 percent of viewers agreed or strongly agreed with the last two points.  

As primary author Cassie Freund noted in a submission for Current Conservation about the study, “While this doesn’t mean all those people are actively trying to obtain a primate pet, the prevalence of that sentiment is shocking and speaks to the need for continued action against the exotic wildlife trade.” 

In discussing their results, the authors say that this research shows people who post images of themselves interacting with primates may actually “be doing harm despite their well-intentioned efforts to the contrary.” They conclude that the risks of posting images of themselves in the photos with the primates (essentially, primate selfies) outweigh potential benefits. 

Cronin adds, “We do want people to communicate about these amazing animals, but to do so in a way that doesn’t risk harming them. These data tell us that we should not post or share ‘selfie-style’ images of people with primates if we want to support their conservation and welfare.” 

Take Action With Us 

Lincoln Park Zoo continues to change the way it operates based upon the research being done by the almost 40 scientists on staff here. We urge members of the public to do the same. Here are some simple ways you can help:
Pause Before Posting: Stop sharing or liking images and videos you see that include primates depicted as pets or performers. When you’re traveling, don’t pose with photos with these animals, or pay to see species living in poor conditions.  

Walk the Talk: Do not buy products from companies that use inappropriate portrayals of primates in advertising. Avoid movies or television shows that use primate “actors.”  

Spread the Word: Let others know about the importance of keeping primates off their social media, whether you’re having conversations online or in real life.  

And support Lincoln Park Zoo as we continue our work! This includes doing research such as this study, tracking and evaluating the lives of every chimpanzee living in the U.S. through Project ChimpCARE, and supporting legislation that can protect animal lives.  


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