Use of primate “actors” misleading millions of viewers

More needs to be done to educate audiences, including viewers at home and filmmakers, on the unethical nature of using primates in the film industry, says a leading expert in a new study.

Brooke C. Aldrich, trustee at the charity Neotropical Primate Conservation, highlights serious concerns around the wider implications of using primate “actors” in films, including the trivialization of their conservation and welfare needs and representing them as suitable pets to viewers.

The new study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Anthrozoös, analyzed two decades of English-speaking film trailers from the period 1993-2013 to understand the modern use of primate “actors” in the film industry.  Primate “actors” have been featured in major Hollywood films such as The Hangover Part II, The Wolf of Wall Street and Babe: Pig in the City.

Results indicated that primate “actors” in more than half the cases studied are shown amongst humans and performing “human” actions the vast majority of the time.  The study also found that these individuals were shown “smiling” – which in most primate species can surprisingly indicate fear or submission.

Of further concern is how the use of primates as actors in films may misrepresent their conservation needs. A previous study by Steve Ross and colleagues found that 35% of respondents mistakenly thought chimpanzees were not endangered due to their frequent appearances in film and television, and the continuing use of primate “actors” is likely to reinforce this misconception. Although the number of films featuring primate “actors” is relatively low, the wide reach of the film industry could worsen millions of viewers’ understanding of primate needs and behaviors.

Primate ‘actors’ continue to feature in films, despite an ever-increasing understanding about the welfare needs of nonhuman primates.  Orangutans are the only species with declining usage, which Aldrich hypothesizes could be due to their long-standing listing under the US Endangered Species Act, making them more difficult for Hollywood filmmakers to source.

Author of the study Aldrich commented, “Far too often, well-meaning, animal-loving people fail to recognize the suffering of wild primates in captivity.  Given how often people see images of “smiling” chimps or capuchin monkeys, apparently happy to be wearing a pirate suit or brushing their teeth, it’s not surprising. As long as monkeys, apes and other primates continue to be depicted in this way, such misunderstandings are likely to continue.”