Hollywood’s use of primates in movies trivialises our evolutionary cousins and blinds audiences to the need to protect them in the wild.
That’s the message arising from a paper published in the journal Anthrozoös, analysing the appearance of apes and monkeys in English-language film trailers released between 1993 and 2013.
Primates appear in a wide variety of movies. A single capuchin monkey (named Crystal) had roles in The Hangover Part II, Night at the Museum and George of the Jungle. Other primates appear in flicks including Babe: Pig in the City, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
The paper’s author, Brooke Aldrich of the Neotropical Primate Conservation Trust, based in the UK, found that in more than half the trailers viewed the primates were shown among humans and performing “human” actions. She notes that often the animals were shown smiling – or rather, grimacing, a facial expression that generally signals fear.
In 50% of cases, the primates were depicted wearing human clothes.
Aldrich found that capuchins were one of the species used most frequently in feature films, along with chimps and macaques.
Despite a general improvement in community attitudes to animal welfare, the study found no decrease in the frequency of primate appearances in movies over the 20 years analysed. Orangutans were the only apes to be used less often – a function, Aldrich suggests, of the fact that they have been classified as endangered and are consequently now much harder for Hollywood animal trainers to source.
The paper also raises the fear that because primates are depicted often in movies, the general public might wrongly assume they were present in robust large numbers in the wild when, sometimes, the reverse is the case.
“Far too often, well-meaning, animal-loving people fail to recognise the suffering of wild primates in captivity,” says Aldrich.
“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.”