June 9, 2022
In January 2021 a UK news outlet, The Guardian, wrote about new guidelines aimed at reducing the trade and acceptance of nonhuman primates as pets. The particular focus, following evidence and recommendations from international primatological societies, was on posting and dissemination of photos in which scientists and others–including “celebrity primatologists”– pose with nonhuman primates. The guidelines were simple:
“Celebrity primatologists and scientists have been urged not to post selfies with chimpanzees, orangutans and other primates on social media to help conservation efforts for threatened species.”
The article illustrated the point with a picture of primatologist Jane Goodall holding a toy monkey. The illustration is effective, in part, through the unspoken contrast with iconic photos of Goodall holding infant chimpanzees she studied in Africa (for example- here, here, here, here) and more recent widely-circulated photos showing her kissing and hugging chimpanzees.
The rationale for the recommendations was straightforward.
”Experts fear that images of primatologists interacting with animals can undermine conservation efforts by inadvertently driving demand for the illegal primate pet trade and encouraging the public to take selfies with monkeys, orangutans and lemurs.”The Guardian
You mean like this?
It is somewhat surprising then to see last week’s Guardian article full of photos of a former scientist and emerging PETA celebrity, Lisa Jones-Engel, posing with the pet monkeys she previously studied in Bangladesh and Indonesia. The photos are exactly what The Guardian previously denounced. Given knowledge of the international guidelines, primatologists and others asked a simple question: Why would Jones-Engel and The Guardian engage in behavior that can contribute to undermining conservation efforts and encourage public misconceptions about primates? It is an especially unfortunate and ironic choice for an article takes the guise of reporting on efforts to protect primates.
The photos are also ironic given that part of the article’s focus is on zoonotic disease transmission and the risk of viruses leaping from monkeys in the wild to humans. Even a casual reader can’t help but wonder how seriously to take Jones-Engel’s concern when the images of the person, the monkeys, up close, sharing air and not a mask or other protective gear in sight are right before your eyes.
What would help?
We call on The Guardian to do two things:
- First, when running photos that show the same behavior the news outlet has previously denounced, note that simple fact. Also inform the reader – as we’ve done here – by writing about why showing close contact between humans and pet monkeys is bad for conservation and animal welfare.
- Second, in future articles that prominently feature anti-animal research campaigners, make an effort to avoid uncritical promotion of information that generates misperceptions about public health challenges. At the moment that is monkeypox. As we wrote yesterday, the same Guardian article also gave opportunity and platform for a PETA campaign leveraging the monkeypox outbreak. At the very least, the news outlet should make an effort to critically evaluate the claims they amplify via quotes from campaigners and accompany those with information from world health agencies.
~Speaking of Research