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How A Lincoln Park Zoo Expert’s Research On Saving Apes Led To A Ban On Greeting Cards Featuring Costumed Chimps

CVS will stop selling greeting cards featuring great apes in unnatural positions, which advocates say will reduce mistreatment of the animals and help conservation efforts.

Susie is one of two former chimp actors living at Lincoln Park Zoo.
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LINCOLN PARK — National chains are banning greeting cards that feature unnatural images of apes, hoping to better protect at-risk animals — thanks to a local expert.

CVS will ban greeting cards featuring pictures of apes wearing costumes, interacting with humans or posing in photo studios, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced in late November. PETA had lobbied CVS to make the change, saying putting chimpanzees in these settings hurts conservation efforts.

Rite Aid and Walgreens also have embraced the ban, according to PETA, which is pushing major greeting card companies to stop producing the products. CVS didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The changes are rooted in research from Steve Ross, the director of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes.

Ross’ studies found that though these greeting cards seem innocuous, many of the chimps featured in them live hard lives, and commercial cards can promote harmful ideas about the animals. CVS’ decision is a sign the public is becoming more aware of how humans treat chimpanzees, he said.

“It sounds like a fairly sort of harmless, frivolous thing,” Ross said. “But unfortunately, there are sort of a bit more dark undertones to these activities. The chimpanzees that were used as ‘actors’ or photo props for these often come from a very difficult past —living in atypical conditions and not always treated right.”

Lincoln Park Zoo researchers have studied the effects of this type of treatment on humans and chimps. They found widespread images featuring chimps, like on greeting cards, can lead people to believe they aren’t endangered or might make good pets — which hurts efforts to save at-risk species.

Ross and other Fisher Center researchers work in multiple areas to help apes. This includes protecting apes from unsustainable logging practices in the Republic of the Congo and the center’s Project ChimpCARE, which has focused on finding appropriate homes for chimps that have had to live as pets or performers. 

Ross said their work has helped lead to regulatory and legislative changes, including chimpanzees being added to the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015. That prohibits them from being bought or sold as pets or performers. 

Lincoln Park Zoo is also home to Eli and Susie, two former chimpanzee actors that previously lived at Wildlife Waystation, an unaccredited wildlife facility in California that closed in 2019. The chimps came to Lincoln Park Zoo in 2020.

The greeting card ban gives consumers a chance to consider how to use their buying power to advocate for the welfare of animals, Ross said.

“Small changes in consumer behavior can have a significant impact on wild populations,” Ross said. “Whether it’s buying FSC-certified wood products or rejecting media that inaccurately portray ape species, consumers can and do influence the future for this endangered species.”

As the practice of using chimps in entertainment and advertisement becomes less common, Ross hopes Lincoln Park Zoo can continue its chimpanzee advocacy work with the public’s help.

It’s organization like the zoo “that are really doing the heavy lifting here, doing the science that drives this type of regulatory change and who are also out there as a trusted voice with the public, so that we can get out there and say, ‘No, this is what’s best for chimpanzees and this is how you can partner with us to make that change,’” Ross said.

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