There’s a video going viral this week of a chimpanzee idly scrolling an Instagram feed on a smartphone. It flicks through the feed, selects a photo or video, takes it in, and then goes back to the feed. At first, it’s astounding, adorable behavior for a chimp—it looks a lot like me at 1 a.m., bored and heading endlessly down an internet content hole.
The earliest version of it we could find was uploaded to Bhagavan “Doc” Antle Instagram feed three days ago and has more than 72,000 views. Bhagavan “Doc” Antle is the owner and operator of T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species), also known as Myrtle Beach Safari, a wild animal attraction in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
T.I.G.E.R.S. advertises on its website that it has chimpanzees, and the company has previously uploaded viral videos of its chimpanzees using technology.
The video has since been copied to YouTube channels and Twitter accounts, where it’s gone even more viral in the last day. But while the rest of the internet loses their minds over this very relatable chimpanzee, primatologists are not pleased—and for good reason.
In this video, the chimp is scrolling the Instagram feed of Mike Holston, an influencer who claims to advocate for conservation and education, but spends a lot of time hanging out with wild animals.
The walls in the background of the video look the same as they do in Doc and Kody Antle's other Instagram videos. Experts told us that there’s enough in the video to suggest that, wherever the chimp is living, it’s not in a good situation.
“Sorry to be a killjoy, but this isn't something anyone who cares about chimps should be happy to see,” Adriana Lowe, a primatologist and PhD candidate at the University of Kent in the UK, told me in an email. “The animal does look like it's in a domestic home, so it's probably a pet, which is a really really bad idea. Chimps make dreadful pets—they're intelligent social animals whose needs are difficult to meet, even in a setting like a good quality sanctuary.”
The American Society of Primatologists agrees: In a statement on private primate ownership, it “discourages all individuals from privately owning primates for non-scientific or non-educational purposes and from breeding and selling or otherwise supplying nonhuman primates.”
Even sharing images and videos like this one can promote bad wildlife ownership, experts say. “Research has shown that sharing images & videos like this fuels the exotic pet trade, which we never want to encourage,” Ashley Edes, a primatologist who has been discouraging sharing of the Instagram-scrolling chimp on Twitter, said in a tweet. “Animals in the pet trade experience horrific conditions & struggle when they’re eventually surrendered.”
Renowned primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall commented on the sharing of this video in a statement, posted to the Jane Goodall Institute blog on Thursday:
"I am very disappointed to see the inappropriate portrayal of a juvenile chimpanzee in this video which is currently circulating on social media... As responsible and compassionate individuals, I hope anyone who sees the video will not like, share or comment on it and all responsible media outlets change the coverage of the video to highlight stories of chimpanzees in wild or responsible captive care."
Critics of Antle’s safari attraction—of whom there are many, including conservationists and animal rights activists—have called roadside zoo owners like him “the biggest offenders” of an already-toxic exotic animal trade in the US.
“The illegal pet trade is seriously threatening wild populations of chimps and it's incredibly irresponsible, selfish and just dumb to try to own one,” Lowe said. “This one isn't a baby anymore either, which means it's dangerous.”
As for the behavior this chimp displays here—casually scrolling a smartphone—Lowe told me that chimps can be trained to use touchscreens, but it takes a lot of time and practice. “This one has certainly not picked up the phone for the first time moments before,” she said. Because chimps aren’t faithful mimics of human behavior like children are, it’s likely not just monkey-see, monkey-do; it’s been trained to pick up a phone and scroll. Whether it cares what it sees or is just watching the moving images, Lowe said, is unclear.
Motherboard reached out to Kody Antle in an Instagram message, and he told us that he is not a pet, but "an animal ambassador connecting peoples hearts and minds to the wonder of chimpanzees and the plight they face in the world." His name is Sugriva, and Antle confirmed that he lives with them at the Myrtle Beach Safari. Antle said that his days are spent with other chimps in a "multi-acre tree top tunnel habitat with four tree houses, televisions, enrichment and climate control."
Sugriva has always showed interest in cell phones, Antle said, and is mostly fascinated in scrolling through the feeds of people he's met. "This was a completely self taught behavior, we never showed him how to use the phone other than letting him watch," Antle said.
The Antles have previously, controversially strapped a VR headset to a chimpanzee, for the sake of a viral video. But it’s not the animals using tech that’s most concerning—it’s that this wildlife is held in such close captivity to humans, coming frequently in contact with untrained people. It makes it seem like hanging out with a chimp is easy and fun, when in reality it’s difficult and often dangerous.
This illusion is what the Antles have built their safari business on, as trainers for commercials featuring tigers, chimpanzees and other wild creatures in television spots. But even if they’re not selling wildlife to private ownership, allowing the public to come pet tiger cubs or gawk at chimps with AirPods in their ears sets a harmful precedent.
“I realize this isn't the main focus of this video but it should be,” Lowe said. “This kind of content encourages people to think chimps are cute and cuddly and fuels the illegal pet trade.”
Update 4/25, 5:00 p.m.: This article was updated to include a statement from Jane Goodall.
Update 4/26, 11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from Kody Antle.