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The Great Apes



Encourage a greater respect for the intrinsic value and worth of the Great Apes.


The unit will enable students to identify great apes and the similarities they share with humans as well as differences. Students will learn about the family and social structures, behavioral characteristics and physical needs of these highly intelligent animals. Additionally, students will develop an understanding of the ethical issues raised by human use of the great apes and will explore various human perspectives and subsequent actions.


Introduction to the Great Apes

The Great Apes are a type of primate. There are three different types of great ape: the gorilla, chimpanzee and orangutan. Opposed to other primates, apes do not have tails. Apes brains are much more developed than those of other primates. Gorillas and chimpanzees are found in Africa and spend most of their time on the ground, while orangutans are found in Asia and spend most of their time in the trees. All of the great apes are listed in the Conferences on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Appendix, as either "endangered" or "threatened." If a plant or animal is listed as "endangered," this means that the species is in danger of extinction throughout a significant portion of their range. A listing of "threatened" means that the species is likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future unless something is done to change the existing conditions.

The Gorilla

The adult male gorilla stands about six feet tall and weighs more than 350 pounds. Much of this weight is in their mighty chest and massive arms. Far from being ferocious beasts, gorillas are actually mild mannered vegetarians who keep to themselves. There are three types of gorilla: the eastern lowland, the western lowland and the mountain, all are endangered. There are about 10,000 eastern lowland gorillas in eastern Zaire. In western Africa, there remains approximately 100,000 western lowland gorillas. Some 1,000 miles to the east in Zaire, Uganda and Rwanda lives the last surviving mountain gorillas. Only 650 mountain gorillas remain in the wild. They have been forced to retreat steadily farther and farther up the mountain sides as the lower slopes are occupied by humans and turned over for the production of agriculture. Most gorillas live in groups of five to thirty individuals usually with a single "silverback" male who acts as the leader. Groups are very cohesive and generally peaceable.

The Chimpanzee

Chimpanzees are humans closest genetic relative, sharing more than 98 percent of our DNA. When chimpanzees are fully grown, they weigh approximately 110 pounds and grow to be about 3 1/2 feet tall. They usually live to be about 45 years old in the wild. They live mostly in western and central Africa. Chimpanzees diet is mainly fruit, leaves, flowers and insects. They use sticks, stems and blades of grass to flush ants and termites from mounds. Chimpanzees are highly social animals that live in groups. Baby chimpanzees, like other apes, have a strong bond to their mother and are dependent on her for many years after birth.

Until recently, there were over one million chimpanzees living in 25 African countries. Today, this number has dwindled to less than 250,000, with significant populations found in fewer than five countries. This decline is primarily due to the dramatic destruction of African forests in the last 15 years. In addition, adult chimpanzees are killed and sold in local meat markets, and mothers are killed in order to capture their babies and put them up for sale. The few traumatized infants which manage to survive are marketed as pets, or sold to dealers for use in entertainment or medical research.

The Orangutan

Orangutan literally means "person of the forest." Orangutans live in the dense forests of Borneo and the northern tip of Sumatra. Males are approximately twice the size of females, weighing up to 220 pounds and reaching a height of five feet. With great flexibility, they climb trees with ease using their hands and feet almost interchangeably. A large percentage of their daylight hours are spent searching for and consuming food. Each night a new nest for sleeping is constructed from boughs. The nest is built 40 to 60 feet up in a tree. Their diet is mainly fruit, in particular the fruit of the Durian tree.

Pre-historically their numbers were probably in the hundreds of thousands and their range extended from southern China through southeast Asia. Today their total numbers range from 20,000-27,000. They are endangered primarily because their habitat continues to be altered or destroyed by logging, agriculture, fires and the practice of killing a mother to secure an infant or juvenile for the live animal trade. Many times baby orangutans become pets or are used in the entertainment industry. Usually 6 to 8 die for every one that survives. The reduction of suitable habitat is forcing orangutan populations into smaller areas which cannot support them.

Uses and Abuses of Apes

Gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans are used in a variety of different ways for a variety of different reasons, some of which have already been mentioned: food, entertainment and medical research.

The Gorilla

In Africa, gorillas are used for food, called bushmeat. Armies of bushmeat hunters supported by the timber industry infrastructure illegally shoot and butcher gorillas in the forest region of west and central Africa. In the 10th issue of the Gorilla Conservation News, the critical message which emerged was the serious threat that hunting poses to gorillas. As logging roads open up previously inaccessible tracts of forest, the trade in bushmeat grows into a large commercial enterprise. Bushmeat not only feeds the logging camps but is transported to urban centers. Illegal hunting has reached alarming proportions in some countries, and could possibly wipe out gorillas from particular areas. After the hunters are gone, if they don't take the baby gorillas, they are condemned to die from abuse and malnutrition because their parents have been killed for food. If they are taken, they maybe sold to animal trainers who contract the gorillas out for movies or television. They may also be sold to zoos. In the United States, gorillas are used for entertainment purposes, particularly used in zoos.

The Chimpanzee

In Africa, chimpanzees, like gorillas, are used for bushmeat. In the United States, chimpanzees are used for medical research and entertainment. In the wild, chimpanzees are endangered and have been given the highest protection under the Conservation on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES has been signed by 132 nations, including the Untied States. With the ratification of CITES and passage of the US Endangered Species Act, importation of wild chimps was significantly curtailed. The last wild-caught chimpanzee was imported to the US in 1975. Shortly after which the National Institutes of Health, an arm of the US Department of Health and Human Services, initiated a program of breeding captive chimpanzees for research. The program's cost was over $37 million. The breeding program was successful, and the combination of an increase in chimpanzee numbers and less extensive research use than was expected created a surplus of chimpanzees and a substantial management problem. Although chimpanzees are available for research, there are also pressures not to use them, such as the high cost of housing and maintenance and their endangered status in the wild. Their close genetic relationship to humans, which makes them desirable to scientists also creates serious concerns about the ethics of their use. The US federal government now owns or supports more than 1000 chimpanzees at a cost of approximately $7.3 million per year.

One hundred and forty-four of these chimpanzees are owned by the Air Force. Some of whom were captured and taken from the jungles of Africa in the 1950's and served in America's "space race." When in the 1970's, the Air Force no longer needed the chimpanzees, they were "leased out" for research. In 1997, the Air Force announced that it would give away all 144 of it's chimpanzees. Under this process, the chimpanzees must either be used in further research, or retired to a sanctuary.

In 1996, the National Institutes of Health funded 37 chimpanzee experiments with taxpayer moneys. According to the US Department of Agriculture regulations under the Animal Welfare Act, the chimpanzees that were used in those experiments only require cages of 25.1 square feet - just five feet by five feet! For an animal weighing up to 110 pounds - this size is very small.

In addition to confining them, experimenters infect chimpanzees with diseases like hepatitis, malaria and AIDS. More than 100 chimpanzees nationwide are HIV-positive without having ever developed full blown human AIDS. In a 1997 National Academy of Science report, scientists stated that chimpanzees are now believed to be a poor animal "model" for AIDS research and yet they continue to be used.

The Orangutan

Orangutans are illegally captured in the jungles of Borneo, usually by shooting a mother and taking her baby. The baby orangutans are popular as pets in Taiwan, but when they get larger and become too powerful to be kept in the house, they are banished to small cages with poor sanitation and no veterinary care.

Orangutan babies are also popularly used entertainment acts. In circuses and other entertainment acts, like Bobby Barosini's Orangutan Act in Las Vegas, orangutans are "trained" to do acts. Often trainers and handlers use electric prods and whips to train the animal performers. Since the animals are afraid of being hurt, they perform unnatural and sometimes dangerous tricks. Orangutans are also used for movies and television. Animals are used to sell everything from clothes detergent to candy. Many animals have been killed or injured just to make a particular scene in a movie or show, including orangutans. Because of these atrocities, a group called the American Humane Association (AHA) decided to spend a great deal of time on this issue, see the For more information section for more details on how to contact the AHA.

What's Going On to Help the Great Apes?

The American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) and other animal protection groups are working together to move the 144 Air Force chimpanzees to a sanctuary where they can live their remaining years in peace. With the help of Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Roger Fouts and others, they have developed plans for a state-of-the-art sanctuary and educational center of excellence called the Institute for Captive Chimpanzee Care and Well-being. There, the chimpanzees will live in natural social groups, with access to large outdoor enclosures, trees to climb and the best care available.

National Chimpanzee Research Retirement Task Force is comprised of thirteen animal protection organizations including the American Anti-Vivisection Society, the American Humane Association, Doris Day Animal League, the International Primate Protection League, and the Jane Goodall Institute. The Task Force's mission is to forward legislation to create and support a National Research Retirement Sanctuary. The Sanctuary will provide a cost-effective facility in which chimpanzees previously used in research can live the remainder of their lives. The environment will be more suited to their physical and emotional needs and more akin to their natural environment - than the laboratory cages in which they are currently warehouses.

Dr. Jane Goodall began her work in Gombe Stream National Park, a thirty-square mile, mountainous forest located on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in the East African country of Tanzania. Within the park, there are an estimated 150 to 160 chimpanzees living in three communities. A multifaceted field study of the chimpanzees of Gombe's Kasakela community, initiated by Jane Goodall in 1960, continues today at the Gombe Stream Research Center under her direction. Dr. Goodall began the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) to study and assist wildlife research, education and conservation. JGI operates programs which support their mission. They have youth and education programs such as Roots and Shoots. They operate chimpanzee sanctuaries throughout Africa. They also continue the invaluable research that Dr. Goodall began, through the Gombe Stream Research Center and the ChimpanZoo Program.

Dr. Roger Fouts has pioneered communication with chimpanzees through sign language and has established the Friends of Washoe organization. His work with chimpanzees has made scientific history as their unprecedented dialogues opened a window into chimpanzee consciousness and origins of human language and intelligence. His accomplishments with one chimpanzee in particular, Washoe, has made him an expert on chimpanzee behavior.

Dr. Birute Galdikas works for orangutan conservation. Dr. Galdikas and her staff assisted the local Indonesian forestry department in confiscating orangutans from government officials who were keeping them as pets. Using diplomacy and reason, she was able to convince officials and others to release the orangutans to her care so they could be returned to the wild. Since 1971 when she began this important work, over 200 orangutans have undergone rehabilitation. The Forestry Department upgraded the Indonesian Nature Conservancy Agency to allow them to conduct patrols of the Park to protect the Park from poachers and illegal loggers. Dr. Galdikas continues to collect hours of observations of wild orangutans, documenting their life histories over the generations.

The Great Ape Project is an international alliance of scientists, philosophers, and animal advocates. Led by Professor Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher and author of the book Animal Liberation, the Project aims to extend to all great apes the rights to life, liberty and protection from torture, rights that so far only human beings are afforded. If the Project is successful, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans will also be recognized as having these essential rights. The Project's current efforts are focused on establishing sanctuaries where formerly captive great apes may live in a semi-wild environment. On another front, The Great Ape Project is also working to establish sanctuaries for victims of the orangutan pet trade in Taiwan. Currently there are approximately 600-1000 orangutans kept as pets throughout Taiwan. The Project calls on the public to support its efforts to build these sanctuaries both in the US and abroad. All apes in sanctuaries supported by The Great Ape Project are treated as beings with rights, not as property. Thus the sanctuaries will be the first step towards the long range goal of seeing great apes.



Divide up students into three separate groups: one to study gorillas, one to study chimpanzees and one to study orangutans. Have the three groups research their primate through books, periodicals, the Internet and interviews.

In order to be able to identify the apes they will have to become familiar with the way they look, both as adults and as babies. The students should become familiar with the physical, genetic, social, psychological and emotional characteristics of the apes as well as the physical characteristics of their environment in the wild. Students should provide information regarding habitat, eating habits and living conditions. The students should understand what an average day might look like for their ape, and how their environment might look and feel as well as how their environment affects them. Have groups report to the whole class on their animal's lifestyle profile.



Have students observe one another - how do they walk? talk? eat? sleep? socialize with each other? Examine how they group together at lunch period. Focus on motor skills as well as socialization skills. Have students compare humans to apes - either the chimpanzee, gorilla or orangutan. Focusing on the differences and similarities of apes and humans - make charts of differences and similarities.

Working with the similarities, have students notice that we, as human beings need land and space, a habitat. And so too, do apes. Have students create charts and/or maps showing how many apes there were approximately 500 years ago, how many human beings there were 500 years ago and how much land was available to both. Then contrast with a chart and/or map of today's population of apes, humans and land.

The American Anti-Vivisection Society does not condone or support the keeping of animals in captivity



Take the class to the zoo, with a critical eye. Before going to the zoo have each group remember the environment that their apes are naturally supposed to live. Once at the zoo, let the groups examine the habitats of the apes they have studied.

Have students question:

  • Whether they feel the zoo provides for the animal's needs sufficiently.
  • How might they improve on it?
  • Do the animals have an approximation of their natural habitat?
  • How are the apes fed? Is foraging re-created?
  • Are the animals pacing aimlessly, rocking back and forth or exhibiting any emotional behaviors attributable to stress or boredom? Do the animals appear healthy, neither too fat nor too skinny and without sores?
  • Are there newborns? If there are, ask zoo officials about plans for the newborns as they mature. Remember in the wild, apes are very dependent on their mothers. And just like with humans there is a strong bond between mothers and babies.
  • Are the apes housed in social groups, with toys, climbing facilities, hiding areas and bedding materials?
  • What does the zoo do with their surplus animals?
  • Does the zoo use apes for "show" purposes? Do they dress them up? Do they separate apes to place them in the exhibit? If so, how does that upset their social bonds?

Have the students observe their animal for two hours. Students should have note pads and pens/pencils to record all of the things the apes do in that time. They should include:

  • Date:
  • Time:
  • Animal:
  • Number of animals in exhibit:

Behavior animals show in two hours:

  • eating playing other
  • nursing climbing
  • bathing making sounds
  • sleeping fighting
  • running nesting


  • rocks a pool
  • trees for climbing light /dark enclosures
  • nest boxes branches
  • plants sand
  • food and water
  • other

After their field work, the groups can write a field report. They should document what their animals did during the observation time, what type of habitat they live in at the zoo and they should be able to answer the questions listed above. Have students discuss and document what they feel their own life would be like in captivity (no visiting friends - locked into one area - possibly never seeing relatives again.)

How can your class participate in at home conservation? Together with your students, decide on three things that the class will be able to do for the rest of the school year to make a difference to the environment and to apes. Possibly fund raise for The Institute for Captive Chimpanzee Care and Well-being or a primate sanctuary (see below).

Performance Objective IV: Students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which apes are used by humans.


Apes and Medical Research - The practice of animal experimentation is a controversial subject that raises ethical and scientific concerns. The reason that so many apes are used for medical research is the very crux of why it is so ethically disturbing for them to be used: they are very similar to humans. Not only do chimpanzees share all but 1.4% of our DNA, but as has been shown, they share many of the same characteristics as humans. The essence of the ethical dilemma is this: Do we have the right to harm, torture and kill chimpanzees even if doing so may help us? This is an opportunity to have students examine the ethics - is it ethical to do this to animals but not to humans? Why or why not?

Have students examine why apes, in particular chimpanzees, are used for biomedical research. Have them research the current regulations for the Animal Welfare Act. They can contact the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a description of the law and what is covered under the law. According to the law, any agency which receives funding by the US government must uphold certain guidelines for the care and use of animals. Once the students have received the law, have them review what applies to primates.

The students may also want to ask the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institutes of Health for a list of animals used in research for the last year. Have the students examine how many of the animals were apes. The students can find out what research is being funded on apes by doing a search on the Internet. The two addresses which will provide this information are: gopher:// and Students can also obtain information through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), by contacting or writing them at the FOIA Office, USDA - APHIA -FOIA, Unit 50 $700 River Road, Riverdale, MD 20737. Have students contact the American Anti-Vivisection Society for information. Students could survey class students and non class students as to their perception of animal experimentation. Once they have done their research, have the students in their groups document what they have found.

Entertainment - Have students research the area of entertainment and apes. They can contact zoos and ask them where they received their animals and where their animals are sent when they leave the zoo. Have students contact the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) for more information. Get a circus video from PAWS and have the students watch it. Once they have finished their research, have them document their findings.



Ethics and Animals - There are many different perspectives regarding animals and ethics. Two of the most well known animal rights philosophers are Peter Singer and Tom Regan. In Singer's book, Animal Liberation, he writes about why we as human beings allege that we have rights. He states that "the principle of the equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans (because in fact we are all different and unique): it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings. It is an implication of this principle that our concern for others and our readiness to consider their interests ought not to depend on what they are like or on what abilities they may possess." Singer includes a passage from Jeremy Bentham, who wrote: "the day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them by the hand of tyranny." Bentham continues to question human beings oppression of animals, when he states, "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" Using this quote from Bentham, Singer points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration.

In Tom Regan's book, The Case for Animal Rights, he asserts that animals, at the very least mammals are autonomous sentient beings with beliefs, desires, memories, self-awareness and an emotional life. They are not moral agents - they cannot choose between wrong and right themselves - but they are moral patients, as are children and mentally handicapped persons. As such, animals are individuals with equal inherent value, and therefore, we must treat them in ways that respect this value, not out of kindness or concern for our own characters, but because of their inherent rights.

Given, these two perspectives, discuss with students the ethical dilemma which we face, going to a zoo, buying a product that is tested on animals, dissecting animals and animals used in biomedical research.

Discuss the story of Binti-Jua. A three-year-old male human child fell near the public walkway into Brookfield Zoo's gorilla exhibit Friday August 16, 1996. Binti-Jua, an eight-year-old female western lowland gorilla who was carrying her 17 month old infant on her back at the time, picked up the injured child in a cradling fashion and immediately carried him to an exhibit doorway where zoo staff could reach the boy. Discuss what made Binti do what she did? Was she expressing her natural maternal instinct?

Discuss how we care for apes in our society and how we neglect them? Are apes not a unique expression of life that have inherent value, for no reason other than the fact that they exist? Do apes have the right to live their lives without interference or exploitation? Have students document individually their ethics surrounding this topic.


  • Design a project to determine junior high and/or high school students knowledge of and attitudes towards animals in zoos. If you design an experimental study you will need a control and treatment group. The intervention (treatment) might be a unit on monkeys and apes consisting of classroom presentation of materials from humane societies and zoos and videos of the same species of animals in the wild. You might want to use an attitudinal scale developed by Kellert (1984) to test students attitudes. Students in both the control and treatment groups should be given a pre-test and a post-test. Compare your hypotheses about the results to the actual results. Make recommendations for future research.
  • Interview students who have gone to zoos to find out what they remember? And why? Ask them if they realize that chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are all threatened if not endangered species? Find out their attitudes towards why they think they are endangered? And if they know, how did they learn? From a zoo? TV? school?
  • Research the use of endangered species used in medical research. Discuss the ethical dilemmas regarding their use.
  • Examine captive ape behavior in different types of enclosures (or in comparison to the wild) and/or examine the effects of different enrichment devices (behavioral and environmental) on the animals.


Available through American Anti-Visection Society:

  • The Great Ape Project by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer
  • Next of Kin by Roger Fouts
  • Animalearn: the magazine for kids who love animals, Primates by Animalearn
  • Animalearn: the magazine for kids who love animals, Animals in Entertainment
  • The AV Magazine, A Death in the Family by the American Anti-Vivisection Society
  • The AV Magazine, Dissecting Dissection
  • The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan
  • Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
  • When Elephants Weep by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy
  • The Animal Dealers by the Animal Welfare Institute
  • Monkey Wars by Deborah Blum
  • Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
  • Animal Rights: A Beginners Guide by Amy Blount Achor
  • Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
  • The Pictorial Guide to the Living Primates by Noel Rowe
  • Animals in Society by Zoe Weil
  • So, You Love Animals by Zoe Weil
  • The Frog Fact Files by Animalearn


  • Achor, A. B. 1996. Animal Rights: A Beginners Guide. WriteWare, Inc., Yellow Springs, Ohio.
  • Brookfield Zoo Statement, Binti-Jua's Rescue of Boy.
  • The Bushmeat Project - Save the Great Apes. The Biosynergy Institute, 1996.
  • Fossey, D. 1983. Gorillas in the Mist. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Goodall, J., Ph.D. Information on the JGI from a brochure.
  • Gorilla Conservation News, No. 10, May 1996.
  • Harcourt, A.H. 1996. "Is the gorilla a threatened species? How should we judge?" Biological Conservation, 75, 165-176.
  • McGreal, S., Ph.D. "Fighting the Primate Trade." Fall 1996. The AV Magazine, A Death in the Family. The American Anti-Vivisection Society.
  • Napier, J.R.; Napier, P.H. 1985. The natural history of the primates, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Regan, T. 1983. The Case for Animal Rights. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.
  • The Seattle Times. May 22, 1996. "Atlanta zoo may send Ivan back to Northwest."
  • Singer, P. 1990. Animal Liberation. Random House Inc., New York, New York.
  • Strieker, G. "Endangered apes being killed for meat" December 9, 1995.
  • Young Readers Edition The Primates.