I’d heard a lot about Emma before I finally met her. I’d heard about her resourceful, clear nonverbal communication, where she seemed to use magazine pictures or toys to get her point across. I’d heard that her games were playful and varied, and her social network intricate.
Emma was a chimpanzee, living in the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Louisiana. I met her when I visited my friend and chimpanzee caretaker last April. As we approached her room, she wandered over, obviously interested in the unfamiliar faces. We began playing a game, asking Emma to touch parts of her face—her eyes, her ears, her mouth. To my surprise, Emma played along, easily keeping pace with our requests.
Of course, decades of scientific research should’ve prepared me for the similarities between humans and chimpanzees. These nonhuman primates are our closest evolutionary neighbors, and we share 98% of our genome. Chimpanzees are socially adept, creatively use tools, and can communicate with sign language, gestures, and verbal calls. In fact, chimpanzees are thought to have better short term memory than humans, and are better at simple games of random chance like rock, paper, scissors. Both of these skills, and others, are likely products of their own unique evolutionary history.
Given their unique intelligence and similarities to humans, it is unsurprising that the National Institute of Health decided to end its use of chimpanzees in medical research last yaer. Around 310 government-owned chimpanzees are to retire. The NIH is largely taking its lead from the Institute of Medicine, which declared in 2011 that chimpanzee research could no longer be justified. Alternative animal models and noninvasive computational approaches reduce the need to experiment on our closest living relative, according to the report.
In addition, until recently chimpanzees in the wild were classified endangered, while their relatives in captivity were listed as threatened. This distinction, or “split listing”, allowed scientists and entertainers to skirt strict breeding regulations and perpetuated using chimps in entertainment. This has significant effects on the chimpanzee conservation effort: a study published in 2011 shows that subjects who see chimpanzees in commercials have a skewed perception of how endangered chimps are (very).
While these policy changes are important steps for chimpanzee conservation, more needs to be done. With only a few hundred thousand chimps left, now is the time to support efforts to slow deforestation, be an informed consumer, and learn more about one of our most intelligent cousins.