Picture Perfect: Setting Standards for Animal Imagery

Jillian Braun
May 19, 2022
Jillian Braun
May 19, 2022
It’s likely you can picture a video of a tiger cub playing with a puppy, an image of a “smiling” young chimpanzee in clothing, a post of an otter swimming with people in a pool, or a clip of a toothbrush combing through a marmoset’s fur. These viral images may be considered cute…but at what cost to the animal, or the species as a whole?

It’s likely you can picture a video of a tiger cub playing with a puppy, an image of a “smiling” young chimpanzee in clothing, a post of an otter swimming with people in a pool, or a clip of a toothbrush combing through a marmoset’s fur. These viral images may be considered cute…but at what cost to the animal, or the species as a whole?

For years, Lincoln Park Zoo has been at the forefront of understanding how images like these are consumed by the public and how their virality impacts animals. Armed with research, passion, and a drive to do better, the zoo is righting wrongs and setting the standard for animal imagery across accredited zoos.

Keeping Apes Great

Since the inception of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes in 2001, Lincoln Park Zoo has been dedicated to understanding the lives of primates both in human care and in the wild to better their care and conservation.

One prominent example is the creation of Project ChimpCARE by Stephen Ross, Ph.D. Through this initiative, Ross located every single chimpanzee living in the United States—be it living at a zoo, sanctuary, unaccredited roadside zoo, or circus, or even as a pet in a private residence. The goal? To improve the lives of every chimpanzee by the most appropriate means. In some cases that meant moving a chimp to a more suitable facility, while in others it meant supporting legal cases to ensure a chimpanzee was moved to an appropriate situation where it could live life as a chimp should—among other chimpanzees.

During one of his numerous site visits, Ross met Eli and Susie, two chimpanzees that were being used as performers in the entertainment world. For years, Ross tracked their every move as they appeared in movies and music videos and also changed owners. By 2018, both chimpanzees had landed at Wildlife Waystation, an unaccredited facility that closed the next year. With this facility shut down, more than 40 chimpanzees were left without long-term care. Ross worked with local authorities and the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance to help identify homes for dozens of those chimpanzees and today, Eli and Susie reside with a troop of chimpanzees right here at Lincoln Park Zoo. For perhaps the first time, they are able to just be chimpanzees and to live among their own kind, creating appropriate social bonds and making up for those lost years on the movie set.

Individual welfare and differences in a specific animal’s life are what ensure that each one can flourish—under the best possible care.

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words

Another aspect of the Fisher Center’s research is understanding how images impact humans’ perceptions of animals and their respective conservation status. The findings from a study published in 2011 showed that when humans saw images of chimpanzees in unnatural settings—such as an office, in clothing, or alongside a human—they were less likely to view chimpanzees as endangered and more likely to see them as potential pets. This Fisher Center study was later replicated with other nonhuman primates such as lemurs with similar findings.

These images not only impact the welfare of the individual animals who are often forced to partake but also their wild counterparts who depend on humans to conserve them.
This research has informed many animal care and imagery policies across Lincoln Park Zoo and beyond and empowered the zoo to be data-informed advocates, especially for chimpanzees greatly affected by these images. Most recently, this research helped facilitate the decision for CVS Pharmacy to cease selling greeting cards featuring chimpanzees. The zoo has also helped pull Amazon ads featuring primates and stopped capuchin monkeys from appearing in dog races at county fairs. This year, Lincoln Park Zoo has also endorsed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) photo guidelines for nonhuman primates. These are all steps in the right direction.

While we haven’t expanded this research to big cats and carnivores quite yet, we can rely on the growing evidence and have confidence that nothing good can come of animals being shown in unnatural settings or engaging with people for entertainment.

In addition to Lincoln Park Zoo being home to chimpanzees Eli and Susie, we welcomed American black bear Birch in 2014 after he was passed around a college campus as a cub, which resulted in a bite. He now spends his days engaging in natural behaviors alongside fellow bear Katai, foraging for his favorite foods, sleeping the winters away, and splashing around the stream in his habitat.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have television shows like Tiger King that go viral because of the emphasis on direct, and often unsafe, human interactions with wildlife. These portrayals tend to largely overlook the mistreatment of the animals at these unaccredited facilities where individuals are generally bred without consideration for their welfare or the health of the population. Long after their frequent photo ops at these “zoos,” the animals are often discarded and sent to disreputable facilities without the expertise or resources to provide proper care.
Millions of eyes on these shows mean revenue for content producers and even expanded audiences for unaccredited zoos. What they do not do is help animals experience good lives nor support wildlife populations. So, the best thing you can do for wildlife is just don’t watch.

With this in mind, Lincoln Park Zoo is committed to educating everyone about how these inappropriate portrayals affect wildlife. We won’t showcase animals in environments that could be harmful to their welfare or conservation outcomes. The zoo is evolving its imagery policies to no longer share images of big cats or other carnivores in contact with people. The only exception will be images of veterinary exams which clearly portray the careful work of our professional staff. It is our responsibility, as protectors of these animals both in our care and in the wild, to lead by example to make sure we are part of the solution.

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