7 min read

That Viral Video Of A Chimp Hugging His 'Rescuer' Isn't What It Seems

Poor baby 💔

Inside a home, a baby chimp wearing a onesie jumps up and down as he wraps his little arms around a man’s neck for a hug.

He nestles his furry head onto the man’s shoulder as they embrace, calling out with loud screams of excitement.

It’s a “cute” scene that has been shared millions of times online — but the backstory is anything but heartwarming. Limbani the chimp is reuniting with his supposed “rescuer,” as the caption states, but it’s highly likely that he was actually bought from a breeder and torn away from his mother, animal welfare experts say.

Little Limbani has since spent his days living as if he were a pet and posing for selfies with visitors at Zoological Wildlife Foundation, an infamous for-profit zoo in Miami that presents itself as an endangered animal rescue. Guests can pay to pet and take photos with exotic animal residents, including tigers and monkeys — a practice commonly associated with abuse and exploitation, and forbidden at true sanctuaries.

Instead of playing and leaping into trees with other chimps his age, which a reputable sanctuary would encourage, Limbani is regularly shown in photos riding around in a human toddler car seat and eating Popsicles.

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Limbani riding in a car seat | Instagram/limbanizwf

Erika Fleury, program director for North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), says the false way this viral video has been framed as a special moment by major media brands such as CNN and CBS perpetuates the dangerous idea that this chimp’s lifestyle is acceptable and sustainable in the long term.

“Although Limbani was supposedly rejected by his mother after birth, it is a very common practice for animal breeders to remove infant chimpanzees from the mothers shortly after birth in order to more easily handle and sell them,” Fleury told The Dodo. “[This results] in long-lasting and harmful repercussions throughout the chimpanzee’s entire life.”

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Limbani eating a Popsicle | Instagram/limbanizwf

Once Limbani grows older, he will no longer tolerate the consistent handling and photos with zoo visitors, which is an attraction that guests pay for in order to experience. Having been raised in the spotlight as if he were a human child, it won’t be long before he becomes a confused and emotionally frustrated adolescent.

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Limbani dressed in pajamas inside a house | Facebook/Zoological Wildlife Foundation

“As chimpanzees grow even a few years old, they quickly become too strong, rebellious and manipulative for human handling,” Fleury said. “They are not domesticated animals and never will be, so they experience mental and physical ailments when denied the opportunity to engage in natural behaviors as they would in the wild. This can include depression and obsessive compulsions resulting in self-harm, but also can manifest in antisocial behaviors and aggression.”

These behaviors won’t bode well for his interactions with visitors — which raises the issue of what Limbani’s life will look like when he no longer brings in as much revenue for the zoo.

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Limbani posing for a photo with a zoo visitor | Instagram/limbanizwf

Fleury says it’s common for young chimps in his situation to be sold off to trainers, roadside zoos or exotic pet owners once they outgrow the roles they were purchased for — which can almost certainly lead to a life of continued isolation.

The best option for Limbani to live the life he deserves would be to transfer him to a sanctuary, Fleury said. Due to his young age, it’s likely he would acclimate well — and he would finally be able to live among other chimps.

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Limbani "celebrating" his birthday | Facebook/Zoological Wildlife Foundation

“It's never too late for a chimpanzee to be placed in a sanctuary,” Fleury said. “NAPSA would absolutely encourage ZWF to contact us regarding placement for Limbani at one of our member sanctuaries. Limbani has many decades of living ahead of him, and we hope that he may enjoy the enriched, social and dynamic lifetime care that only true sanctuaries can provide.”

To help connect chimps like Limbani with a reputable sanctuary, you can make a donation to North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance.