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Reuters/Sukree Sukplang
A two year old chimpanzee (not Limbani) pictured in a zoo in Thailand.
NOT A PET

The problem with following adorable exotic animals on Instagram

Rosie Spinks
By Rosie Spinks

Quartzy Reporter

Limbani is a 2.5-year-old chimpanzee who lives in Miami. He has more than half a million Instagram followers, ever eager for more pictures of him skateboarding, hanging out with other exotic species, or eating popsicles.

The comments below Limbani’s photos are almost universally positive. He is, after all, objectively adorable, and his followers have no reason to think Limbani has anything other than a nice life. And there’s a moral glow that comes with liking a Limbani post, because most of them bear a righteous-sounding hashtag: #notapet.

For the casual scroller, it’s easy to get the sense that liking and following an account like Limbani’s is a sort of lowkey online activism. The place he lives is described as a “foundation.” His posts telegraph the hashtagged awareness that wild animals shouldn’t be kept as pets. His bio says his account is intended to educate followers “to conserve chimpanzees.” And the Zoological Wildlife Foundation (ZWF), where he lives, maintains a top-ten ranking on TripAdvisor’s list of things to do in Miami.

And indeed, Limbani’s super-fans can visit him at the ZWF in Miami. But his time isn’t cheap—$700 for a 10-minute “encounter,” including photos—but that isn’t so surprising. As with human influencers, Limbani’s time and likeness are valuable.

But the story is not so simple. Some experts say no matter how well Limbani is treated, his widely loved Instagram account may not be in his best interests—nor those of the species he’s a member of. And the big business of viral animal videos and wildlife photos on the internet raises a broader question: What responsibility do social media users have to make sure the wild animal content they crave is not being posted at the expense of the very species they hope to conserve?

Chimpanzee culture

So, what’s the problem with animals dressed in cute outfits, anyhow? Beyond the fact that chimpanzees aren’t naturally inclined to wear clothes, experts say it can signal subpar treatment.

“Anytime you see a viral video of an animal acting unnaturally, be suspicious,” said Andrew Halloran, director of care at Save the Chimps, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida that is closed to the public and provides lifetime sanctuary to chimps who were formerly mistreated in the entertainment, laboratory, or animal trade sectors. “Be suspicious that someone is making a profit off of an animal that is not receiving the best of care and whose welfare is being jeopardized.”

It should be noted that Halloran does not have any direct knowledge of the quality of Limbani’s care beyond what is depicted online. (And indeed, neither does Quartz. We made repeated attempts over several months to reach ZWF, but its director, Mario S. Tabraue, declined to comment other than to call questions about the ethics of his operations “frivolous and unfounded.”)

But there are a few facts that should give a Limbani fan pause: For one, he appears to live in a place without any other chimps. A USDA inspection report (pdf) from October 2018 shows he is the only chimpanzee in residence at the facility. That indicates that Limbani is being raised in an environment that might not be optimal for a highly social species. Studies show that “chimpanzee cultures” are distinctive, require a community of chimps, and are passed down from one generation to another.

And though the use of the word “foundation” may suggest something philanthropic, it doesn’t necessarily mean the ZWF has been certified as a respected animal sanctuary or zoo. ZWF is licensed by the US Department of Agriculture, which licenses all facilities that exhibit animals to the public, whether it’s a world class zoo or exotic animal park. However, ZWF is not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a voluntary system of accreditation that’s widely seen as the gold standard of animal welfare in the United States. Due to its stringent standards, the AZA has accredited only 215 out of the more than 2,000 USDA-licensed facilities in the United States.

In an AZA policy paper (pdf) explaining why the depiction of apes in media and commercial performances is problematic, the organization explains that “apes destined to be performers or photographic props are typically removed from their mother shortly after birth and, thus, are denied opportunities for normal social and psychological development.” While these chimps will be more amenable to their human owners, they often display abnormal behaviors (including self mutilation), and are unable to fit into any normal social group in the future. They may also become dangerous to their owners and handlers as they age, the AZA says, and “thus, handlers of ape performers often must use food deprivation, physical abuse, continuous tranquilization, or even electric shock to maintain control.”

The AZA adds, “It should be noted that the apparent ‘smile’ of a performing chimpanzee is actually a well-documented expression of fear.” Rob Vernon, a spokesman for the AZA, added in an email that while “many [AZA] members have thriving Instagram accounts with millions of followers, you won’t find photos of chimpanzees dressed in outfits or performing unnatural behaviors.”

The ZWF declined to comment on the ethics of depicting Limbani in human-like environments on Instagram or in human encounters. It did not respond to requests for comment about Limbani’s background, the types of professionals it keeps on staff to care for him, or its wider conservation efforts. Again, we have no evidence or reason to believe that Limbani in particular is being abused or mistreated.

Despite the “foundation” in its name, ZWF is a for-profit enterprise. Its website says its conservation efforts include supporting “in-situ on the ground programs, as well as captive breeding programs, to insure [sic] a future for threatened and endangered species that might otherwise be lost.” Mother Jones previously reported that Tabraue has opposed legislation that would restrict the acquisition of some exotic animals to accredited zoos. 

Who pays the price?

It’s not clear where Limbani came from, whether he was born in the wild and orphaned or has lived his entire life around humans. And of course, we’ve seen chimps used for entertainment for decades, from Cheetah, who starred in the Tarzan movies of the early 1930s, to the chimps of Britain’s PG Tips tea advertisements. Indeed, many of those animals became beloved celebrities and lived long lives in captivity. So some of Limbani’s fans and followers might well ask: Is it really so bad that he continues to live in human surroundings?

If you’re concerned about the conservation of chimpanzees as a species, then yes. At least according to Barbara J. King, an emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and the author of How Animals Grieve, an exploration into animal cognition and emotion.

King says that using the undeniable appeal of an animal such as Limbani to raise awareness for the conservation of an entire species is bad for both the individual and the species at large.

“If something goes wrong in an encounter with a wild animal, who is going to pay the price?” King asks. “We know even in the wild or captivity or anywhere, a lot of times if an animal does something out of fear or stress, then the animal pays the price, whether it’s euthanized, isolated, or something else.” She notes animals can also contract illnesses from humans.

In addition, King points to a 2011 paper published on PLoS One which suggests that domesticated wild animals can hurt the case for conservation. Studies showed that viewing photos of exotic animals in the presence of humans (as depicted on ZWF’s website, for example) makes the human viewer 30% more likely to find a chimpanzee appealing as a pet. In addition, when people were asked to view chimpanzees in a human-like background, they were “significantly less likely to categorize chimpanzees as endangered/declining compared to those viewing chimpanzees in neutral, jungle or captive/zoo contexts.”

Lastly, King says, paid-for animal encounters and the depiction of subdued animals in human-like settings encourages people to approach wild animals in settings where they are dangerous, such as in the wild or a national park.

As someone who says her work is on the “cusp of scholarship and activism,” King acknowledges how frustrating it is that our natural draw towards animals and desire to be close to them can so easily end up causing the abuse of the animals.

So what’s a lover of cute animals on the internet to do? King says you should do research and err on the side of caution before you like or share a picture or video of a wild or exotic animal online, or pay to visit a facility where one is housed. Meanwhile, Halloran suggests that if you really want to save chimps, focus on the main source of their demise: the animals’ rapidly declining natural habitat.

As animal lovers, King said, “it’s a fantastic dream to be able to have a moment of connection with the animals who are our closest living relatives. [But] we have an ethical responsibility to put the animal’s welfare above our own momentary pleasure.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Save the Chimps sanctuary is located in Miami, Florida, instead of Fort Pierce, Florida.