The Plight of Chimpanzees
January 1, 2012

This month’s Comet’s Corner was written by Caitlin Andrews for the MSPCA.

As the busy holiday season comes to an end, one thing stands out in my mind as a theme of the past few weeks: family. I love the holidays because they mean my brother comes home from college, I have some time just to relax, and I get a chance to spend time and catch up with my extended family. At any large family gathering, I am always struck by the common threads that pull us all together. Some of them would be obvious to any outside observer; my dad and his five siblings, for example, all have the same dark hair and share other physical characteristics. However, among my cousins, many of the similarities are less evident. Although we all lead very different lives, we share a similar sense of humor, a love of learning, and a deep appreciation of our family.

I also love the holidays because of the meaningful gifts that I am fortunate to receive. For the past few years, my mom has made a donation to several animal-related organizations in my name. This year, I received a sponsorship of a chimpanzee—my favorite animal—which included a photograph of “my” chimp looking very happy in his sanctuary in Africa. Once again, I found myself thinking of family as I thought about the plight of my other dear “relatives,” the chimpanzees.

Like us, chimpanzees belong to the Order Primates, distinguished from other mammals based on a list of unique characteristics. Primates have unique brains; eye sockets surrounded by bone; three types of teeth; nails or claws, including flat nails on their big toes; and at least one pair of opposable, or bendable, digits. (We humans have opposable thumbs which enable us to grip objects and manipulate tools, and chimps have opposable thumbs and big toes which make skilled tree-climbers.) Chimps, gorillas, orangutans, gibbons, and humans are also classified as apes. Unlike monkeys, apes are large and heavy, have a broad chest, lack a tail, and walk in a more upright fashion.

Just by looking at any of these other apes, it is clear how much we share in terms of DNA. Humans and chimps, for example, share about 96% of their genetic material. The four subspecies of chimpanzees live mainly in savannas, grasslands, and tropical rainforests of western and central Africa. Although covered in thick black hair, chimpanzees have bare faces which highly resemble ours. At birth, they weigh about 2 to 4 pounds and have light skin, which darkens as they age. Unlike other apes, adult chimps show little sexual dimorphism, or physical differences between males and females, except in their heights and weights. Females are about 3 feet tall and weigh between 70 and 105 pounds, while males are about 4 feet tall and weigh between 85 and 130 pounds or more. While chimpanzees will walk on two legs if they are carrying something in their arms (which are actually longer than their legs), most of the time they walk on all fours and on their knuckles.

Like my cousins and I, chimpanzees and humans share much similarities much deeper than mere physical characteristics. Chimpanzees are highly social animals like us, and they live in multimale-multifemale communities of between 20 and 100 individuals in which males are dominant. With brains very similar to humans’, chimpanzees exhibit many emotions, thoughts, and capabilities that many people thought for a long time that only humans possessed. Chimpanzees are curious problem solvers who can have abstract thoughts and complex emotions, ranging from happiness to sadness, fear to excitement. They communicate with others through vocalizations which can be heard over 2 miles away, and they also utilize more private modes of interactions, including facial expressions, grooming, and a laughter-like vocalization.  Young chimps are very dependent on their mothers, and chimps as old as 8 have died after being orphaned; however, chimps’ close family bonds mean that there are usually many eager to help out new mothers or take care of orphans. Males typically leave the child-rearing to the females, and they may protect their communities from others quite aggressively.

One of the most astounding theories surrounding chimpanzees is that they possess culture, which is typically defined a set of behaviors or beliefs characteristic of a group and is usually passed down from generation to generation. In my mind, chimps fit this definition, and this is particularly exemplified in their amazing tool-making abilities. Although most of their diet consists of fruits, leaves, and other plant parts, chimpanzees also eat termites and other insects and on some occasions have been known to eat meat. They strip bark from long sticks to “fish” termites out of termite mounds, use spears to stab small mammals in tree holes, and use stones to crack nuts. Chimps also have been known to use plants for medicinal purposes, chewed up plants as sponges to soak up water, and leaves to clean wounds. The beauty of cultural tradition is that these techniques don’t have to be reinvented every generation; instead, they are passed down within communities from adults to young so that each generation can benefit from and build upon the knowledge of the previous generations.

If a chimpanzee isn’t evidence enough that animals possess emotions, intelligence, and creativity, then I don’t know what is. Sadly, these incredible animals have not been given the respect and kindness that they—and all animals—deserve. While there may have been millions of chimpanzees in the wild 50 years ago, today there are probably about 150,000, and humans are certainly at fault for the endangered status of their nearest cousins. Human population growth and land development has resulted in a severe loss in chimpanzee habitats. With little land to call home, chimpanzees are forced to live in closer proximity to humans, resulting in conflicts between locals, chimps, and those who wish to help.

Additionally, a huge and frightening threat to chimpanzee populations is the illegal bushmeat trade. Just one species targeted by the trade, chimpanzees are illegally hunted for their meat, leaving countless chimps killed and orphaned as a result. Helpless orphaned babies are often taken by hunters and sold through the illegal pet trade; they often live the rest of their captive lives in harsh conditions—not with other chimpanzees or in the forests where they belong.

Finally, chimpanzees living in captivity right here in the United States are exploited for medical research. Living in horrific conditions and subjected to damaging experiments, chimpanzees are the frequently-chosen subjects to test drugs and treatments for human diseases due to their similarities to us, even when the results may or may not accurately translate to humans. Those who are educated about the atrocities being committed against chimpanzees in research labs know that it is difficult—if not impossible—to justify using chimpanzees for this purpose.

It’s easy to get disheartened by the plight of chimpanzees and other animals, but there is almost always a way to keep on an optimistic path. There is certainly more awareness about the threats to wildlife now than there was twenty years ago, and there are more organizations dedicated specifically to helping make a difference in these issues. Just last month, the National Institutes of Health announced a suspension of grants for new biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees in the U.S., unless the research is proven to be necessary for human health and using chimpanzees the only possible mode of testing. It’s a good first step in a long road to end medical research using chimpanzees, and there are many more steps that, I hope, will come soon. For now, it is important to keep educated about the issues, keep active in the conversation about chimpanzees, and keep advocating for the rights of chimpanzees and all other animals facing adversity.

Remember to: Read more, Speak out on the behalf of the animals you care about, and Educate yourself and others.

Learn More:

Jane Goodall

Roots and Shoots

MSPCA - Advocacy

MSPCA - Using Animals for Entertainment