A video of a baby chimpanzee hugging a dog has gone viral — for all the wrong reasons.
Dressed in a bright pink onesie, Limbani the chimp is seen in the recent video hugging and climbing on a dog lying on a leather couch.
While the dog doesn’t seem to be bothered, the video shows an underlying problem behind the interaction: It’s clear the young chimp is being raised as if he were a pet — despite being in the care of the Zoological Wildlife Foundation (ZWF) in Miami, a zoo that claims to be focused on wildlife conservation.
At the zoo, guests can pay to pet and take photos with exotic animal residents, including tigers and monkeys — a practice commonly associated with abuse and exploitation. Despite the zoo’s supposed mission to educate people and conserve chimps, experts say it’s doing the exact opposite.
“Chimps, like humans, are born helpless and learn most of their social behaviors from their mothers,” Halloran said. “This chimp has been put in a situation where he’s been deprived of all of that, and on top of everything, is bringing in upwards of $1,000 for every 10 minutes guests pay to hold him.”
Because of his tender age and cute smile, Limbani is one of the zoo’s most popular attractions. But this only promises a future of further isolation, Halloran said.
“Chimpanzees are highly unpredictable — and one like him will only be able to be a moneymaking venture for a few more years until it becomes a problem,” Halloran explained. “When chimps are forced to only hang around people, it becomes a disaster. If and when something happens, he’ll be put in further isolation which would only continue to negatively impact him psychologically.”
Since ZWF did not respond to a request for comment, it’s unclear where the zoo got Limbani or whether there are any other chimps there whom he is able to interact with. No chimps aside from Limbani are shown on the zoo’s website and social media accounts.
Experts also worry that by showing the chimp wearing kids’ clothing and doing particularly humanlike things, the zoo is promoting the idea that they are able to be domesticated — which is not possible.
Despite this, some people are drawn to the idea of purchasing chimps as pets and will raise them as if they were a child. To Prashant Khetan, chief executive officer of Born Free USA, Limbani is being showed off as if he were someone’s pet — not the wild animal that he is.
“A normal infant chimp learns how to be a chimp from his family unit,” Khetan told The Dodo. “They’ve stripped him of that ability and he is being taught how to interact with the world as if he’s a human child.”
In other videos posted by the zoo, Limbani is shown sitting on top of a pizza box unwrapping a cookie, and rolling on the floor with a puppy while wearing a diaper. His Instagram profile shows snapshots of him riding in toy cars meant for toddlers, climbing the fences of animal exhibits at the zoo and posing with paying visitors for photos.
This is in stark contrast to organizations grounded in conservation — which provide natural environments for chimps to live in alongside their own kind, and do not allow guests to interact with them. Many are not open to the general public.
According to Erika Fleury, program director for North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, it’s not uncommon for zoos and entertainment facilities like ZWF to operate under the false pretense of being a sanctuary or a conservation-driven organization.
Mentioning conservation efforts or highlighting animals on-site who are rescued typically attracts guests because they believe that they are supporting a reputable organization, Fleury said — but allowing direct interaction with animals and earning profits from ticket sales are never qualities that align with conservation groups.
“True sanctuaries operate with the welfare of their animals as their first and highest priority,” Fleury said. “They … do not permit public contact with the animals and would never remove their animals from the property for any purpose other than veterinary care. These practices are not in the best interests of the animals — they are done to raise money, and these practices are harmful and stressful for the animals involved.”
When videos like this go viral, it’s common for people to react in a positive way, Khetan said — but it’s important to think about why the animal has been put into this situation in the first place, and where he will end up once he’s too old to be used as a photo prop.
“A chimp is not naturally going to want to climb on the shoulders of a human for a photo,” Khetan said. “The only way you can do this is if you’re doing something to the animal to make him do it. Doing so does nothing to conserve the species — but what it does do is make a lot of money.”