14th July 2023

Why is it that orcas have been free from captivity in the UK since 1993, while chimpanzees still languish in our zoos and wildlife parks? As one of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees share 98.5% of our genetic DNA. So why is it that we’ve largely recognised orcas have the same right to freedom as us, but we haven’t come to the same realisation with chimpanzees? 

A history of exploitation 

Since 1961, at least 166 orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild and 129 of them have died. The most famously shocking abduction in 1970 at Penn Cove, Washington, saw more than 80 orcas rounded up and crying mothers separated from their calves. Marine naturalist Sandra Pollard recalls the incident in her book, Puget Sound Whales for Sale: The Fight to End Orca Hunting, saying local residents are haunted by the whales’ piercing screams. Six babies were sold and only one, Lolita (also known as Tokitae), is still alive. Now, after 56 years of hell in a Miami seaquarium, authorities have finally recognised Lolita doesn’t belong there and plans to release her are underway.

Around the same time, thousands of infant chimpanzees were being ripped away from their mothers in the wild to be held captive in zoos. Through our attempts to humanise them we’ve become desensitised to the fact that they’re wild animals who deserve to be free. London Zoo held its first chimpanzees’ tea party in 1926, dressing them up in human clothes for demeaning displays that continued until 1970. They were the inspiration for the famous PG Tips TV adverts that began in 1956, another long campaign that attempted to humanise the animals for entertainment. Twycross Zoo later admitted it was cruel to use its chimps in the TV ads – and that one of them, known as Choppers, had become ‘mixed up’ because of it.

Other zoos echoed the same behaviour, but not all regret it. Paignton Zoo – now celebrating its centenary – proudly continues to laud its smoking, gardening, dog walking chimpanzee known as Primley Mary, long after her death. 

With both chimpanzees and orcas being known for sharing features of our own species, and similar social structures too, it’s unsurprising that they suffer equally in captivity. So why are we arguing for their intelligence when as ringmasters of a catalogue of completely misguided events, perhaps humanity needs to question its own?

How the animals suffer

Just like humans, orcas and chimpanzees form their own tribes – pods for whales and parties for chimps. Forcing them into captivity with animals they don’t know can cause severe distress. Orcas in captivity display aggression towards each other and develop self-harming habits such as gnawing on the walls or gates of their wildly disproportionate tanks.

Lost for the whales is the freedom to swim across the world’s oceans and gone for the chimps are the lush savanna woodlands and tropical forests. Abnormal behaviours from captive chimpanzees include repetitive rocking, neck twisting, bar and wall-licking, over-grooming, self-mutilation, eating or playing with faeces, vomiting, and regurgitating. So, with similar trauma evident in both species in captivity, again, why are chimps being forgotten in the UK? 

Changing hearts and minds

At Belfast Zoo chimpanzees have grabbed their own headlines for frequent escape attempts, only to be rounded up again by armed police. Tragically 4 were shot dead last year after escaping the Furuvik zoo in Sweden, a place dismally described as ‘part of an amusement park’.

Despite disturbing events such as these, attitudes towards chimpanzees in captivity are not changing as fast as they are for orcas. The iconic boy-meets-whale film Free Willy generated a huge amount of empathy for whales in captivity, while Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 film Black Fish, was the real catalyst for change. The film uncovered the extreme stress captive orcas experience while living in tiny concrete tanks. It sparked public outcry against orca captivity with #EmptyTheTanks spreading like wildfire on Twitter. A campaign of the same name is now focused on ending dolphin and whale captivity.

After Blackfish, SeaWorld lost corporate sponsors, tour operators and tourists, but chimpanzees are yet to be represented on film as individuals who want and deserve their freedom. However, campaigns to free both mammals are ongoing with charities such as Freedom for Animals, doing everything in their power to close animal ‘abusement’ parks and zoos for good.  

Animal advocacy and The Con in Conservation

For wild chimpanzees there are numerous organisations working to make a difference, from Project Chimp to Chimp Haven, The Born Free Foundation (working for both animals), and the Jane Goodall Institute. Their Forever Wild campaign is calling out Chimpanzees’ objectification on social media to help shift public perceptions, but zoos are once again, confusing the issue.

When a rare west African chimpanzee ZeeZee gave birth at Chester Zoo earlier this year, they celebrated, but captive breeding programmes cannot prevent a species from going extinct in the wild.They’re still just keeping animals in prison to make money by exhibiting them while the wild population dies”, explains Freedom for Animals’ Isobel McNally. “The rarer the animal becomes in the wild, the more valuable the captive animals are for attracting visitors and making business more profitable.

This is an example of The Con in Conservation that keeps chimpanzees behind bars. 

Hope for the future

After 50 years, it is hoped that Lolita (Tokitae) will finally be set free from her SeaWorld Miami misery soon. If it happens, she’ll be reintroduced to the wild gradually, after acclimatising in the world’s first whale sanctuary. 

And while we may be way behind in our efforts to free all chimpanzees, it was painful and pleasurable to see Vanilla’s story going viral recently. Her joy as she looked up at the sky for the first time following a lifetime spent caged in a research unit, touched the hearts of millions and brought tears to my eyes. Why is it that people can recognise a chimpanzee should be able to see the sky, but not that they need to form their own social structures, forage together, and control their territories? 

We must teach people to respect wildlife and the wild spaces they come from. Orcas are getting their freedom back, so what about chimpanzees? We know both species have the same high levels of intelligence so let’s be logical, and kind, by giving them equal rights. Chimpanzees deserve everything that a life in the wild offers too, and seeing the sky is just the start of it.

Show your support for chimpanzees and orcas by donating towards Freedom for Animals’ work to liberate both species from captivity here

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