Should non-human apes be wearing clothes?
You don’t see chimpanzees and orangutans roaming around the jungle wearing tutus, and non-human apes used in entertainment are forced to wear clothes and look “cute” for our viewing pleasure. But sometimes apes in sanctuaries are found wearing clothing. At Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest (CSNW), we offer a variety of clothing items as part of the chimpanzees’ daily enrichment.
Captivity itself is inherently unnatural for non-human apes. No facility, even the finest one, can fully meet all of the natural needs of a chimpanzee. In their natural environment they have miles and miles to roam, usually through thick vegetation with lots of tall trees to climb. They live in large family groups and spend most of their time looking for food.
We work tirelessly to give the chimpanzees in our care the best possible life we can, but we recognize that it’s not the same life they would have if they had grown up as free-living chimpanzees. We provide the chimpanzees with experiences that may mimic a natural environment (like our “termite mound”) and ensure that they have the opportunity to carry out instinctual behaviors (like making nests), but we also need to come up with lots of other activities that allow their active minds and sense of curiosity to remain stimulated. And this means that we give the chimpanzees many things, including clothing, which they never would have encountered in the wilds of Africa.
A lot of captive non-human apes were raised as pets in human homes, in which case they probably wore clothes when they were babies. Some chimpanzees grew accustomed to clothing and will choose to put clothes on later in life, and some will not have anything to do with clothes that are given at a sanctuary. Even as adults, many non-human apes will choose to put on clothes, particularly during play — Missy, for example, often pulls on a sock when she’s ready for a game of chase. For sanctuaries, the goal is to give captive apes anything — familiar or new — that they will enjoy.
How is it different from non-human apes in entertainment wearing clothes? Choice! Non-human apes on TV are often duct-taped into their tutus and don’t get a say in whether they wear them or not. Apes in sanctuaries, on the other hand, are offered clothing as part of their enrichment but can choose what to do with it. Jamie is the queen of choice at CSNW. She chooses whether to put on a shirt or shred it for a nest, whether to draw with a crayon or eat it, whether to sleep, play, or work on projects, and so on.
We have decided to share pictures with you of the chimps sometimes doing “silly” or “human-like” things because it’s a part of who they choose to be. The chimpanzees are expressing themselves, often in ways that we humans can directly relate to — like throwing on a scarf before dinner, or carrying a doll as they take a stroll. We strive to provide context to these images because we cringe when we see chimpanzees dressed up against their will and shown off within the entertainment industry, and we hope this page provides more context and information.
As always, please feel to reach out and contact us with your questions.