Why we should start thinking about treating primates differently

Posted on April 12, 2020

If we think about primates, monkeys, apes or chimps, what comes to mind first?
Are they just the same as every other animal, or does something make them special?

“Gorilla” by Rob Schreckhise

Many people when they think about this beautiful animal think of cruel circus tricks used to amuse us humans, the “smoking monkey” for example. 
Some may use the term “monkey” as an insult to somebody else. “You’re as stupid as a monkey”. “A monkey could do it better”. And so on.
Some cultures even eat chimps.
Some may as well be more moderate, and simply think nothing of them.

But I beg to differ.
When people ask me, or if the topic comes up, I always say that my favorite animals are chimps, or primates in general. This is usually unexpected by the other person, which usually asks me why. 

The most similar animals to us are chimpanzees. They share about 99% of their DNA with ours. Some people say that although there is this big common factor between our two species, they don’t act like us humans. 

Are we sure about that?

Group of chimpanzees in Uganda – Wikipedia

Just like us, the chimpanzee is a highly social animal. They make communities and have individual and complex personalities. They can walk upright and have opposable fingers.
Because of this, they can craft and use tools, such as sticks and stones. They know how to use leaves to drink water, for example. 

A story that is very dear to me is that of Koko the Gorilla. Her story is so peculiar and awesome because her caregiver, Francine Patterson taught her sign language.

Yes, you read that right. Koko was able to actively communicate with humans through Gorilla Sign Language (GSL) and American Sign Language (ASL)! Her vocabulary was at the same level as a 3 year old human, meaning she understood about 2000 words of English. 

She understood the concepts of life and death, and liked to play with kittens.

A video of her that stayed in my mind was that of her eating cake for the first time and then, when asked, describing it using the two signs for “sweet” and “bread”, which makes total sense!

Pretty impressive isn’t it?

Koko signs “Smoky” to Penny (holding her cat Smoky) – Koko.org the Gorilla Foundation

A person that I very much admire is of course primatologist Jane Goodall. 

She was one of the very few people to study chimpanzees up close, and live with them in Africa.

Jane Goodall in 2015

Within two weeks Jane observed David Greybeard again, but this time what she witnessed was truly game-changing. Squatting by a termite mound, he picked a blade of grass and poked it into a tunnel. When he pulled it out, it was covered with termites, which he slurped down. In another instance, Jane saw him pick a twig and strip it of leaves before using it to fish for termites. David Greybeard had exhibited tool use and toolmaking—two things that previously only humans were believed capable of.

When Jane cabled the news to Louis Leakey, he sent this response:

NOW WE MUST REDEFINE TOOL STOP
REDEFINE MAN STOP
OR ACCEPT CHIMPANZEES AS HUMAN

How Jane Goodall Changed What We Know About Chimps – National Geographic

After all, chimpanzees and most primates aren’t that much different than us humans. They’re in fact our cousins, as we share a common ancestor.

This is why I think we should start rethink our perception and the way we treat these beautiful and intelligent creatures. 
Is it fair to keep them caged in zoos for our amusement? Is it fair that some cultures eat them? I say “no” to all of this, and that’s why I love chimps and primates so much. 

Posted in: Animals Culture Nature


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