Visitors’ attitudes toward non-human primates in a free-roaming multi-species
sanctuary (Monkeyland, South Africa)
Christian Lenzi1, Chiara Grasso1*, Siobhan Speiran2
1 Associazione ETICOSCIENZA, Turin, Italy - email@example.com
2 The Lives of Animals Research Group, School of Environmental Studies,
Queen's University, 99 University Ave, Kingston, ON K7L 3N6 - firstname.lastname@example.org
* Corresponding author: email@example.com
The aim of the present study is to investigate themes related to visitors’ perceptions of captive
wildlife in particular, attitudes towards non-human primates (henceforth, primates). This
research took place in free-roaming, multi-species primate sanctuary, Monkeyland (South
Africa), where 400 visitors were interviewed using an anonymous survey both before and after
attending a guided tour. The answers were divided into different categories, in order to
standardize the motivations behind tourists’ choices. The results of the survey demonstrated
that most visitors agree that a primate would not be a good companion animal. Visitors’ desire
to touch primates was found to be positively correlated with desire for companion primates and
inversely associated with visitor age. In response to: “would you like to touch a monkey?”, the
majority of tourists who expressed this desire seemed aware that such interactions are not
appropriate, with concern for animal welfare and human health. Of the various primate species
present in the sanctuary, visitors preferred the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) and, generally
speaking, expressed appreciation for primates’ “cuteness”. Our results indicate a general
awareness by the visitors on the importance of animal welfare in the human interactions with
captive wildlife, in agreement with the “hands-off” policy of Monkeyland primate sanctuary.
We discuss the findings from a general to zooanthropological point of view, proposing some
reflections on the attitudes of visitors toward non-human primates.
Keywords: human-wildlife interactions; non-human primates; zooanthropology; primate
sanctuary; Lemur catta
Tourism and Public Perception of Wildlife
The environmental and educational context in which wild animals are displayed can influence
the public’s perception of the natural world, lifestyle, and behaviour of the species on-display.
As demonstrated in a study by Finlay et al. (1988), animals in a zoo setting are typically
perceived as passive and tame, while the same species presented in a more naturalistic
environment are perceived as active and wild. Furthermore, a survey published in 2002 showed
that interacting with wild animals, experiencing educational opportunities, and viewing a large
diversity of species are the most exciting experiences visitors have in captive wildlife settings.
Preprints (www.preprints.org) | NOT PEER-REVIEWED | Posted: 30 July 2021 doi:10.20944/preprints202107.0684.v1
© 2021 by the author(s). Distributed under a Creative Commons CC BY license.
Negative experiences reported by visitors, however, include the presence of poorly managed
facilities, a lack of services, and observing animals performing stereotypical behavior (Woods,
Researchers have evaluated the potential influence of knowledge, gender, age,
occupation, pet ownership, education, and geographical location on human attitudes toward
animals (Eagles & Demare, 1999; Prokop & Tunnicliffe, 2008; Pirrone et al., 2019). An older
study examined these factors within the United States, finding significant differences between
males and females’ stances on moral issues (e.g. animal testing and hunting) and species
preference (males prefer predators and invertebrates, while females prefer more conventionally
attractive animals like dogs, cats and butterflies). Moreover, it appears a higher education level
can have a positive influence on interest in and sensitivity to animals (Kellert & Berry, 1987),
while occupation and income can play a key role in influencing the attitudes toward animals
(Taylor & Signal, 2006).
Kellert has demonstrated that age is also an important factor influencing concern for
animals (Kellert, 1984a). In particular, children's perception toward animal species develop by
age: between ages 6 to 9, they are more sensitive to emotional and affective aspects for
example about pets, between age 10 to 13 is suitable for knowledge of cognitive aspects, and
between age 13 to 16 for discussion of moral and ecological issues connected to animals
Beyond the influence of individual variables, however, preference for specific animal
species is an ongoing subject of research. Children have shown a greater preference for
mammals, especially domestic species, compared with other taxonomic groups (Bjerke et al.,
1998; Borgi & Cirulli, 2015). One study demonstrated a preference for species with whom
people were already familiar (e.g. domestic, companion species) (Woods, 2000). Reasons cited
for liking animals include their perceived attractiveness, intelligence, and character, while
reasons for disliking them tend to focus on the threat of potential harm the species poses to
humans (Woods, 2000).
Among the various taxa, non-human primates (henceforth, primates) are a good case-
study to interrogate the relationships between humans and wild animals, in both wild and
captive settings. Primates have always been part of the collective imagination (Fuentes, 2012);
they are protagonists (or, antagonists) in conflicts with local populations (Hill & Webber,
2010), and they are a popular order of animals represented virtually on social media, and on
display at zoological facilities.
Tourism Encounters with Non-Human Primates
Direct, physical interactions between humans and primates can lead to health problems
for both parties; such interaction often increases the likelihood that infectious pathogens will
be exchanged (Wallis & Lee, 1999; Goldberg et al., 2007; Muehlenbein et al., 2010).
There are many situations in which tourists can experience a physical encounter with
primates, involving touching, feeding, and photographing themselves with the animal for a
wild ‘selfie’ (Stazaker & Mackinnon, 2018). At some sites, one can purchase wild animals as
companion animals, as is in the case of white-handed gibbons and slow loris in Thailand (Gray,
Preprints (www.preprints.org) | NOT PEER-REVIEWED | Posted: 30 July 2021 doi:10.20944/preprints202107.0684.v1
2012; Osterberg & Nekaris, 2015) or macaques in Morocco (Stazaker & Mackinnon, 2018).
Specifically, in the latter case the negative influence of the presence of tourists at short distance
has been documented (Maréchal et al., 2011). This includes increased anxiety experienced by
macaques when they were approached for a photo or to be fed, and the experience of stress
when they were subjected to aggressive interactions from humans. Macaque encounters have
become a popular tourist attraction; at tourist sites most human-macaque interactions include
tourists in 85% of events (O'Leary & Fa, 1993).
What is the perception of tourists toward primates? The answer to this question is not
immediately evident. Globally, primates may be perceived in different ways: from divinities
(e.g. in India and Nepal), to pets, to pests or conflict animals. Cultural factors play an important
role when it comes to devotion, tolerance, or rejection (Lee & Priston, 2005). It appears that in
Asia, there are some of the greatest contradictions in attitudes toward non-human primates
(Eudey, 1994; Knight, 1999; Fuentes, 2006).
The popularized keeping of primates in homes as companions may have contributed to
the perception of these animals as domesticable (Lee & Priston, 2005). In addition to this, films
and TV shows depicting chimpanzees or other primates dressed in human clothing can have a
major impact on the public’s collective imagination, leading to a potential underestimation of
their conservation status and increasing their desirability as a pet (Ross et al., 2008; Ross et al.,
2011; Schroepfer et al., 2011; Leighty et al., 2015). A recent study has shown how the
propagation of viral videos on social media can have similar significant impacts, offering a
distorted view of wild animals and promoting captive detention as pet (Clarke et al., 2019).
Zoological facilities are excellent sites to investigate how tourists perceive non-human
primates. A study carried out on visitors to Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo showed that, people
had a good prior knowledge, after visiting the zoo visitors demonstrated a significant increase
in knowledge about gorillas and chimpanzees. There were no significant differences between
the attitudes of the visitors before and after the visit, but returning visitors showed a more
ecocentric perspective compared with first-time visitors (Lukas & Ross, 2005). Exhibiting
primates in naturalistic environments may be an effective way to engage tourists’ interest on
conservation issues of monkeys and apes (Lukas and Ross, 2014). In particular, viewing free-
ranging monkeys can stimulate interest, increase sensitivity and education of visitors towards
primates (Price et al., 1994).
One of the first free-roaming sanctuaries established for non-human primates is
Monkeyland (South Africa), inaugurated in 1998, featuring 12 hectares of indigenous forest
hosting semi-free monkeys and apes of many species (Nelson et al., 2009; Hamilton &
Fragaszy, 2014). In 2017, the anthropologist Muehlenbein conducted a study surveying 1175
of Monkeyland’s visitors. This study showed that: (1) 31.1% of visitors had already visited an
attraction to see primates, while 29.4% were aware of health risks related to contact with
primates, and (2) although most visitors were aware of the possibility of contracting (86.2 %)
or transmitting (84.5%) diseases to wildlife, 54.8% would touch or feed a primate given the
chance, and 10.4% desire primate companions. Furthermore, 20.0% of visitors had already
experienced a direct interaction with a monkey or ape, and 2.3% have been scratched or bitten
by a primate. Finally, the study demonstrated the positive impact of having a guided tour of the
sanctuary: a survey of 258 visitors showed that, after the visit, there was an increase in
Preprints (www.preprints.org) | NOT PEER-REVIEWED | Posted: 30 July 2021 doi:10.20944/preprints202107.0684.v1
awareness of zoonoses, and a decrease in the desire for direct interactions or for primates as
companion animals (Muehlenbein, 2017).
Aims of the study
The aforementioned research carried out at Monkeyland by Muehlenbein (2017) considered
human attitudes toward non-human primates manly in relation to zoonoses and other possible
risks to human health. Following the review of this study and the broader literature regarding
visitors’ perceptions of wild primates at tourist sites, from zoos to natural settings, we suggest
that this topic requires further investigation. The aim of our present study is to contribute to
this growing body of literature.
In particular we focus on themes relevant to zoo-anthropological studies, including
primates as companion species, direct encounters between visitors and primates, and visitors’
preferences for a particular primate species. We interviewed visitors to Monkeyland using an
anonymous, written survey, and present the results here using a qualitative and descriptive
approach, with suggestions for future research.
Materials and Methods
This research was conducted at Monkeyland, a private free-roaming multi-species primate
sanctuary located in Plettenberg Bay, Western Cape, South Africa. The data was collected
between November 2017 and January 2018.
Monkeyland is part of the SAASA (South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance), together
with Birds of Eden and Jukani, and consists of 12 hectares of indigenous forest bounded by an
electric fence along its perimeter. The sanctuary is home to 11 species of non-human primates,
native to different continents, totaling more than 700 individuals living sympatrically in the
forest (https://www.monkeyland.co.za/about-our). The 11 non-human primate species include:
the black and white tuffed lemur (Varecia variegata), ring-tail lemur (Lemur catta), spectacled
langur (Trachypithecus obscurus), hanuman langur (Semnopithecus entellus), black howler
monkey (Alouatta caraya), Bolivian squirrel monkey (Saimiri boliviensis), Geoffroy's spider
monkey (Ateles geoffroyi), tufted or brown capuchin (Sapajus apella), red-backed bearded saki
(Chiropotes chiropotes), vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus), and white handed or lar
gibbon (Hylobates lar). Most of the primates living in this sanctuary were rescued from
captivity (including old zoos, circuses, research laboratories, touristic attractions, homes), but
some were also born in the sanctuary.
As a tourist attraction, the sanctuary is open daily to the public. Visitors attend hour-long
guided tours during which they can observe the animals at a safe distance, take pictures and
videos. Although the free-ranging primate residents are habituated to human presence, any
"hands-on" experiences between tourists and animals are forbidden, including feeding and
touching. The official web site states: “Please note: We have a strict no-touch policy at our
primate sanctuary. Look, photograph, video, but please don’t touch.”
In order to collect information on the attitude of visitors towards the resident primates, we
conducted an anonymous survey of Monkeyland visitors. We handed out questionnaires to 400
visitors in total; 200 to visitors before their visit and 200 to different visitors after their visit.
Survey participants included both adults, and with parents’ permission, children over the age
of 5. Questions on the survey included: socio-demographic information (i.e. gender, age,
nationality, educational level, profession), prior experiences at SAASA wildlife sanctuaries,
and about perceptions of captive primates (i.e. primates as companions, human-wildlife
interactions, preferences for primate traits and species). For some questions, respondents were
asked to explain the motivation behind their answers (see Appendix 1 for the questionnaire).
A permit to conduct this research was granted by the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance
to which Monkeyland belongs. This research did not require approval from an ethics
The present study was analyzed qualitatively by separating questions into different categories.
This allowed us to evaluate the participants' responses in a standardized way, highlighting the
main themes emerging from their responses to the questionnaire. Our analytical categories
were selected by identifying key themes common in respondents’ answers. For example, if a
respondent said, “I like the way they swing,” we thematically categorized this response as
“movement”. For the open-ended questions, we allowed each visitor one or more answer
categories, and a "no answer" option in the event of a null or illegible response. Open-ended
questions, and their response options, include:
• “Do you think that a monkey/ape could be a good pet? Why?” We classified
responses into the following categories: “wildness”, “cuteness”, “tameable”,
“maintenance”, “fun”, “human-like”.
• “Do you think is correct to touch/feed/play with wild animals? Why?” We classified
responses into the following categories: “animal welfare”, “tameable”,
“dangerousness”, “education”, “feeding”, “fun”, “loveable”.
• “Which is your favourite monkey? Why?” All 11 species housed within the sanctuary
were used as categories, with the addition of the “other” category (in the case of a
non-human primate species not present in Monkeyland).
• To determine visitors’ preference for particular primate characteristics we classified
the responses into the following categories: “beauty”, “cuteness”, “big”, “cleverness”,
“calm”, “fun”, “human-like”, “small”, “movement”, “sound”.
• “Do you think that a sanctuary like Monkeyland is important? Why?” We classified
the responses into the following categories: “bad place for wildlife”, “conservation”,
“education”, “good place for wildlife”, “nice experience”, “research”.
The main results of this study are presented below. For open-ended questions, we present a few
examples to clarify some of the themes expressed by respondents.
Out of the 400 visitors who answered the questionnaire, 208 (52,00%) identified as female,
191 (47,75%) identified as male, and 1 tourist (0,25%) did not disclose gender. Within this
sample, 25 (6,25%) were children (from 5 to 12 years old), 38 (9,50%) teenagers (from 13 to
18 years old), 147 (36,75%) young adults (from 19 to 34 years old), and 190 (47,50%) older
adults (from to 35 years old). Most respondents were from European countries (49,25%) and
from Africa (40,00%), with a few from Central and South America (3,25%), North America
(11 – 2,75%), Oceania (2,25%), Asia (2,00%), and 2 (0,5%) did not express their nationality.
For the educational level, most of the tourists had a degree (23,75% Master’s degree, 18,00%
Bachelor’s degree, 2,5% PhD) or at least had completed high school (22,75%).
Occupation, Past Sanctuary Visits, and Companion Animal Ownership
Respondents to our survey were categorized by occupation, including: management (13,50%),
administrative (12,00%), health (7,5%), education (6,25%), unemployed (5,75%), and
engineering (5,00%). The majority of the respondents were visiting Monkeyland for the first
time (75,50%), and most (72,00%) had not been to other SAASA sanctuaries (Birds of Eden or
Jukani) before. From the total number of visitors interviewed, 60,25% declared having at least
one companion animal, while 39,75% indicated they did not.
Visitor Attitudes’ Toward Non-Human Primates
More than half of our sample (59,5%) indicated the desire to have direct physical contact with
a monkey or ape, while the rest of respondents were uninterested in such an encounter. This
result did not seem to be strongly influenced by gender (female: 58,74% vs. 41,26%; male:
61,05% vs. 38,95%) or native-born continent (Europe: 53,40% vs. 46,60%; Africa: 65,63% vs.
34,37%), but there is an inverse association with the age (children: 88,00% vs. 22,00%,
teenager: 81,58% vs. 18,42%, young: 58,62% vs. 41,38%, adults: 52,38% vs. 47,62%) and a
positive association with the possession of a companion animal at home (companion animal
owners: 66,10% vs. 33,90%; non-owners: 49,68% vs. 50,32%).
With regards to the question “Do you think that a monkey/ape could be a good pet?
Why?” most visitors indicated no (84,75% vs 13,75%, 6 visitors did not answer), and the reason
was mainly related to primates’ nature as wild animals (77,88%). Examples of responses
indicating this trend includ e: “Because they are wild animals and thus should be kept in their
natural habitat” (18 years old, female),” and, “Totally unacceptable to have any wild animal
as a pet” (69 years old, male).
Among the respondents who believed that a non-human primate can be a good
companion animal, the most frequently mentioned categories of responses to the question
“why?” were: tameability (34,37%), cuteness (21,87%), human-like (20,31%), and fun
(18,75%). Two responses indicated the belief that primates can be good companion animals,
stating “It will be very nice if trained well” (40 years old, male), and “They are so cute. I think
that they can be loveable and become your best friend” (25 years old, female).
Next, we considered visitor perception towards direct interactions with primates. In
particular we asked on our survey whether it is correct to have any form of hands-on interaction
(touch, feed or play) with wild animals, and 89,50% of visitors replied it was not correct. We
observed that the majority of respondents who previously showed a desire to touch a monkey
(59,25% of the 400 visitors) were aware that this practice is not correct (86,07% vs. 11,39%),
because may have negative effects on animal welfare (57,35%), or because wild animals can
behave dangerously towards the humans (30,88%). Some sample responses along this line of
inquiry include: “Petting/touching can alter the animal’s natural wild responses and could
influence their responses to ‘wild’ situations affecting their survival” (48 years old, male), and
“Touching, feeding, playing with wild animals could be very dangerous” (36 years old,
The reasoning given by respondents behind why they do not support touch interactions
with primates matched the reasoning given by respondents who did not want to touch a primate,
and believed such an encounter to be incorrect (total of 151). The motivations of visitors who
wanted to touch a primate, and believed it a permissible encounter (6,75% of the entire sample),
reasoned that primates need love (22,22%), that they can be tamed (18,52%), that it is funny
(11,11%), or that it has an educational purpose (11,11%). Two examples of this mindset
include: “Only wild animals who can’t be released back into the wild. Helps to teach people
to love and respect animals” (32 years old, female), and “Animals need love, attention and
affection too” (22 years old, female).
Concerning visitors’ preferences for particular primate species, we asked, “Which is
your favorite monkey? Why?” We found differences among the visitors before and after the
guided tour. Before the tour, the majority of the visitors (52,00%) did not express a preference
(no answer and “I don’t know” or “all”) and the most mentioned species category (47,92%)
was “other” (i.e. monkeys or apes that are not present in Monkeyland), Lemur catta (19,79%),
Hylobates lar (9,37%), and Chlorocebus pygerythrus (8,33%). Independent from species
preference, the most cited characteristics or features were: cuteness (30,00%), human-like
(21,43%), beauty (20,00%), and cleverness (15,71%). After the tour, most visitors cited a
preference for Lemur catta (21,50%) or did not show a specific preference (21,50%), and the
other most mentioned species were Hylobates lar (14,50%), “other” (9,5%), Saimiri boliviensis
(9,00%), Again, independent from species preference, the most cited characteristics or features
were: cuteness (20,16%), beauty (18,55%), fun (15,32%), cleverness (13,71%), human-like
(8,87%), and movements (8,87%). A few examples of the visitors’ preference on animal
species: “My favourite monkeys are Gibbons because how human like they are and friendly the
are toward humans” (11 years old, female), “Vervet monkey; very cute” (33 years old, female),
and “Ring tailed lemur. Because of the Madagascar movie” (13 years old, female).
Impression of Sanctuary
Visitors’ answers to “Do you think that a sanctuary like Monkeyland is important? Why?” were
not significantly influenced by the guided tour. While 355 replied “yes”, 46,76% of this total
were surveyed before their visit and 53,24% after their visit. Common themes identified in the
responses to this question include education (52,74% before and 47,26% after), conservation
(44,90% before and 55,10% after), good place for wildlife (33,01% before and 66,99% after)
and nice experience (61,29% before and 38,71% after). Some sample responses regarding the
perceived importance of Monkeyland include: “It is important in order to save the species”
(48 years old, female), “It gives them a safe home” (52 years old, male),“Yes, to raise
awareness of the danger these animals could be in if don’t take care of the environment” (17
years old, female).
Our survey’s sample population was fairly balanced between males and females, with most
respondents being both young and older adults. The majority of nationalities represented in our
survey were European and African. As education level, most respondens had at least a high
school diploma. Visitors’ occupations were diversified in the sample, with the most declared
categories being management and administrative positions. About 75% of visitors were visiting
Monkeyland for the first time, and had never visited other SAASA sanctuaries. More than half
of the respondents have at least one companion animal.
More than half of the surveyed visitors expressed desire to touch a monkey or an ape;
this result did not seem to be influenced by gender or nationality, whereas we found age and
companion animal ownership did influence responses. When asked, “Do you think that a
monkey/ape could be a good pet? Why?” most visitors said “no”, most often citing primates
inherent “wild” nature as a reason. Among the visitors who believe that a primate can be good
pet, the most cited reasons were tameability and cuteness. Then, when asked if it is correct to
have any form of physical interaction with wild animals, 89,5% responded “no” mainly
explaining that wildlife can be dangerous to interact with, or citing animal welfare issues.
Visitors surveyed before the tour expressed a preference for “other” primate species
than those present at Monkeyland, and those surveyed after the tour expressed a preference for
“other” and the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta). Independent from species preference or time
of tour, the most cited characteristic was cuteness. The majority of the respondents (355)
thought that “a sanctuary like Monkeyland is important”, and this result was not significantly
influenced by the guided tour.
From our surveyed Monkeyland visitors, we have discovered that the desire to touch a primate
is directly dependent on the visitor’s age, and whether or not they own a companion animal,
while gender and nationality was not found to have an influence. Children and teenagers
expressed more willingness to make physical contact with monkeys or apes, and this can be
justified by their naïve curiosity toward the natural world and wild animals. Similarly, visitors
with pets are perhaps more accustomed and/or inclined to interact with wild animals. Over the
years, many studies have been published on this topic, but with conflicting results (Kellert,
1984a; Kellert, 1984b; Kellert & Berry, 1987; Eagles & Demare, 1999, Prokop & Tunnicliffe,
2008; Pirrone et al., 2019). It therefore seems that the specific contexts of such studies present
substantial differences in the factors determining human perception towards animals.
When tourists were asked for their opinion on whether a primate would make a good
companion animal or not, most respondents replied that they do not, on account of their wild
nature. This result is promising since research shows that keeping monkeys or apes as
companion animals can lead to serious consequences for their welfare (Soulsbury et al., 2008).
In fact, in many countries it is prohibited to keep primates as companion animals (Quiroga &
Estrada, 2003). Some of our respondents indicated, conversely, that primates may be good
companion animals due to their perceived tameability, cuteness, resemblance to humans, and
funny nature. This perception can be influenced not only by circuses and entertainment shows,
but also by the mass media (e.g. films, TV programs, social networks, advertisings) and by the
portrayal of monkeys and apes in domestic contexts or close proximity to humans (Lee &
Priston, 2005; Ross et al., 2008; Ross et al., 2011; Schroepfer et al., 2011; Leighty et al., 2015;
Clarke et al., 2019).
These factors that influence the public's attitude toward non-human primates are most
likely the same ones that led some Monkeyland visitors (6.75% of the entire sample) to say that
they would like to interact directly with a monkey or ape, believing this interaction is
justifiable. The motivations behind such a response included: “they need love”, primates can
be tamed, because it is funny, or it has educational value.
However, the vast majority of visitors (around 90%) said that physical interaction
with wild animals was not justifiable, considering risks to animal welfare and human health.
Respondents are therefore aware both of the fact that close encounters can have negative effects
on both parties (Stazaker & Mackinnon, 2018). Many studies have demonstrated the risk of
zoonoses passed between humans and nonhuman animals, especially in tourism settings
(Wallis & Lee, 1999; Goldberg et al., 2007; Muehlenbein et al., 2010).
In general, our results are comparable with those obtained by Muehlenbein’s
Monkeyland visitor research (2017), for illuminating motivating factors which promote or
prevent touch encounters with primates, as well as general impressions of primates and their
desirability as companion animals (Muehlenbein 2017). In fact, in both studies, tourists showed
a search for sensitivity and awareness on issues in the moral and ecological issues on wildlife.
Zoo-Anthropological Implications of Species Preferences
In the survey conducted before attending the tour, some visitors did not answer the question
regarding their preferred species of primate, while others mentioned a preference only for great
apes. This may be due both to a limited knowledge of primates and to the influence of mass
media on people's attitudes towards wild animals.
It emerged from our study that the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) appeared to be the
most popular species among the Monkeyland visitors. This primate is at serious risk of
extinction, due to habitat loss, bushmeat hunting, climate change, and even pet trade. A species
endemic to the forests of Madagascar, in recent years lemurs have found worldwide popularity
amongst the public, surely influenced by the release of the animated film Madagascar in 2005.
Among the main protagonists of the film is King Julien, an anthropomorphized, talking ring-
tailed lemur who captured the attention of viewers with his catchy song: "I like to move, move
it". Nowadays, lemurs are among the most present primate species portrayed on social media
(Willemen et al., 2015). Social media, the entertainment industry, and the internet in general
has had a significant impact on users’ perceptions and attitudes towards lemurs. Just as in the
case of the slow loris, another primate popularized on social media through ‘viral’ videos, the
portrayal of lemurs in domestic settings can impact the public’s perception of their suitability
as companion animals and conservation status (Clarke et al., 2019).
There are thousands of ring-tailed lemurs held in captivity around the world, both as
companion animals in peoples’ homes and at tourist attractions (LaFleur et al., 2019; Reuter et
al., 2019). Some Malgasian tourist attrations (i.e. restaurants, hotels, zoos, reserves,
sanctuaries) may even exploit primates for economic gain, contributing to the development of
an illegal wildlife trade. Lemur catta can offer an excellent example to study the possible
negative effects on animal welfare and conservation, due to its mass popularity.
From our results, it emerged that the quality of “cuteness” is a determining factor in
the way people perceive wild animals, further influenced by their portrayal in mass media.
Although it has previously been documented how, among other factors, the level of education
and occupation type can influence the attitudes toward wildlife (Kellert & Berry, 1987; Eagles
& Demare, 1999; Prokop, 2008), in this study we found no significant differences in this area.
Likewise, geographical origin of respondents did not have substantial effects on the types of
answers we received.
Generally speaking, the aesthetic attractiveness of primates plays an important role
in influencing people’s perception of and preference for particular species (Woods, 2000).
According to one study, it would seem that animals larger in size are those favored by people
who visit a zoological attraction (Ward et al., 2008). Furthermore, surveys conducted in zoos
have shown that visitors prefer mammals rather than reptiles and birds; the majority justifying
this choice mammals are “funny” and “cute” (Carr, 2016). The “cuteness” is a feature
considered socially attractive, especially for some cultures as in the case of Japan (Cheok,
2010). In this context, cuteness as desirable refers not only to real animals, but also to animated
animal characters such as the monkeys of Super Monkey Balls videogame (Pajares, 2003).
Returning to the case of a viral video of a Slow Loris (Nycticebus spp.) interacting with a
human, the most cited characteristic in their comments was the loris’ “cuteness” (Nekaris et
Sanctuaries and Future Research
Monkeyland is a free-roaming attraction offering primates a sanctuary to recover from often
difficult and tragic past lives under human management. The practice of encounters in
Monkeyland is strictly "hands-off", such that visitors are prevented from any kind of touch
interaction (e.g. contact and feeding) with the primates. In this study, the majority of visitors
responded positively to the question “Do you think that a sanctuary like Monkeyland is
important? Why?”, both before and after the guided tour. The reasons behind these positive
responses are diverse, involving different aspects such as education, conservation, animal
welfare and experience. This reveals that the practices of Monkeyland is setting a good example
for other primate sanctuaries, in that their no-touch and no-feed rule demonstrates appropriate
encounters between visitors and primates in ways which safeguards both parties’ wellbeing.
As documented previously (Price et al., 1994, Lukas and Ross, 2014), the keeping of
monkeys in a sufficiently large, free-roam space– in which they can move at will, choose
whether to be close to people or not, and to have the freedom to form social groups– is a model
example of ideal wildlife tourism attractions. Moreover, the guided tour element at such an
attraction positively influences visitors’ knowledge of primate species. Although the structure
of a sanctuary such as Monkeyland is logistically difficult to replicate in many countries, it can
still inspire the tourism industry’s shift towards responsible and environmentally-minded
This research demonstrates a general awareness amongst visitors on the importance of animal
welfare in the human interactions with captive wildlife, in agreement with the “hands off”
policy of Monkeyland. Even if many (59,50%) express the desire of touching a monkey or ape,
most of the tourists thought that a monkey would not be a good pet. The results about species
preference underline the possible influence of mass media on the human attitude towards
charismatic species such as non-human primates. Moreover, as previously documented in
literature behind the concept of “cuteness”, the most cited motivation for the species selection,
it would be an altered vision of wildlife, that may allow people to underestimate the species
conservation status or enhance their desire for pet ownership. In general, the guided tours seem
to have a positive effect on people’s knowledge, in particular for the non-human primate
species. Further research is needed in order to deepen other aspects of visitors-wildlife
relations, especially in touristic settings.
Declaration of Interest
This research was conducted at Monkeyland, a site where two authors have volunteered.
Despite this, the authors declare that there is no conflict of interest regarding the publication
of this article.
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Table. 1 – Visitors’ preference for particular primate species. Considered variables include:
gender (female and male), age: child (under 12), teenager (13-18), young (19-34), and adult
(over 35), continent of origin (i.e., nationality), and guided tour (before or after the visit inside
the sanctuary). The “other” category included the non-human primate species that are not
present in Monkeyland.