Photos of Animals Affect the Way We Think

Animals & Gardens Zoo News

Katie Cronin, Ph.D., Director of the Animal Welfare Science Program

March 15, 2022

You know the greeting card with a grinning chimpanzee wearing a party hat wishing you a happy birthday? I’m sure you can picture that card, but I definitely won’t show it to you.

I can’t show you the picture because previous research from Lincoln Park Zoo has revealed that when people see that image, and other images of animals in unnatural settings, they are more likely to believe two dangerous things: First, they are more likely to believe that chimpanzees are appealing pets, and second, they are more likely to believe that chimpanzees aren’t endangered in the wild. When in fact, chimpanzees suffer in the pet trade and need our protection in the wild.

Taken at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust in Zambia. Photo Courtesy of Katie Cronin, Ph.D.

Photos of chimpanzees and monkeys hanging around humans and spending time in human spaces have been the subject of solid science that has demonstrated the effect these pictures have on our thinking. The first studies on this topic were published about 15 years ago by Lincoln Park Zoo scientists and colleagues (including a little-known co-author, Jane Goodall). This research has influenced how some organizations, such as accredited zoos and sanctuaries around the world, share images of the primates in their care. Some social media feeds are becoming more responsible and deliberately not sharing images of primates alongside people, and CVS and Rite Aid have stopped selling greeting cards of animals in unnatural contexts, thanks to these studies.

Recently, Lincoln Park Zoo collaborated with Disney’s Animal Kingdom to run another study on this topic. This time, we set out to understand who is interested in non-domestic animals as pets and why. We showed thousands of people online images of sloths and pythons—two species common in the pet trade. In this study, we didn’t find that the background setting mattered, but we did discover that younger generations reported far more interest in having these species as pets than older generations. We think this might be due to younger generations’ regular exposure to images of these animals alongside humans across social media channels.

Photo courtesy of Sarina Benoit.

A new study by scientists in Australia revealed another important finding to keep in mind: As people stand closer to animals in photos, viewers are more likely to think the animals make a good pet. Specifically, in this study, if a person was shown about a meter away from an animal, viewers were 1.3 times more likely to think that animal made a good pet. If a person was shown touching the animal, viewers were 1.6 times more likely to think that animal made a good pet. People thought about the animals differently depending on how close humans were to them in the photos.

While primates can thrive in accredited zoos that encourage their natural behaviors, private owners fail to provide the necessary opportunities for positive animal welfare. After all, primates do not make good pets! How can you improve the lives of primates around the world? Take Action With Us by avoiding sharing images and videos of primates as pets or performers and not buying products or watching television shows that feature inappropriate portrayals of primates.

Photo courtesy of Dianne Mohr.

If you’ve never known the harmful impacts of sharing these kinds of images of animals, don’t feel bad! When we know better, we can do better, and avoid sharing images that may lead people to harmful conclusions about animals.