September 25, 2009
Fact and Fiction: Monkeys and Apes as Pets
Five myths show that these wild animals belong in the wild, not the pet trade
Myth 1: Monkeys and apes are cute and cuddly pets.
Fact: The cuddly baby will grow larger, stronger, and more aggressive. As babies, all primates are dependent upon a caregiver, whether the natural mother or a surrogate human. At this stage monkeys and apes may appear tractable and cooperative. When they begin to express their normal and instinctual behavior as they mature, monkeys and apes become extremely difficult to handle. Pound for pound they are much stronger than humans. Chimpanzees, for example, can be seven times stronger than humans. Monkeys and apes have large teeth and can inflict serious injury, especially upon children. Biting and scratching are natural behaviors for these animals, and are not eliminated by captive breeding or the love of a surrogate parent. Their long lifespan (up to 30 years for monkeys and 60 years for apes) creates the need for long-term, expensive, and specialized care.
Myth 2: Pet monkeys and apes can be raised like humans.
Fact: These animals require unique care, including a special diet, companionship of other nonhuman primates, and appropriate housing. Their housing alone requires very large enclosures that allow for climbing and swinging—in short, the kind of environment provided by their natural habitat. The average pet owner cannot provide for these needs. When owners find the animals too difficult to handle, they often resort to confining them in small, barren cages. Some owners try to make the animals safer by having their teeth pulled (which would be considered a violation of the Animal Welfare Act if done by a zoo), but even that doesn't make the animals safe. Some animals are sold and resold in what is known as the "exotic pet trade." They may be used for breeding to start the cycle anew, or they may come to their bitter end in a research laboratory or a roadside zoo.
Primates who are hand-raised by humans are severely deprived of appropriate role models for their natural behaviors. It can be difficult or impossible to rehabilitate them to live with other monkeys and apes, and often requires large amounts of scarce resources for lifetime care. This puts a major strain on the very limited number of sanctuaries capable of providing adequate care for primates. Most responsible sanctuaries are now full or near capacity because so many animals have been relinquished.
Myth 3: Monkeys and apes do not pose a human health risk.
Fact: Monkeys and apes carry a number of viruses as well as fungal, bacterial, and parasitic diseases that can pose health risks to humans. Some of the more serious are: Herpes B virus, Shigella, Salmonella, and tuberculosis. There is also concern about simian viruses transmitted to humans getting into the human blood supply (such as the newly discovered simian foamy viruses).
Almost all macaque monkeys naturally carry the deadly Herpes B virus, which can be transmitted to humans through body fluids, scratches, and bites. In research settings and at professionally run zoos and sanctuaries, people take precautions to minimize contact with these animals, particularly since a woman died in 1997 after biologic matter from a macaque splashed into her eye, yet pet owners take them out in public.
Humans also pose a serious health risk to monkeys and apes, via the transmission of pox viruses, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and meningitis. Viruses that may not be so serious to humans can be deadly to nonhuman primates. Frequent contact between humans and primates increases these health risks.
Myth 4: Monkeys and apes can be trained to "behave."
Fact: Despite attempts to train these animals, their intelligence, independence, and strength puts them in control—they determine whether they want to "cooperate" or not. The monkeys and apes seen on television and in movies are often very young infants. Their careers in show business are frequently short-lived (less than 5-8 years) because even professional trainers have difficulty handling them. Beyond the infant and adolescent stage, when monkeys or apes may be submissive, trainers cannot maintain control over primates, and may resort to physical discipline or punishment. People who attempt to keep them as pets face the same problem, and attempts to neutralize the danger can be inhumane. There's no predicting when these animals might turn violent, as was demonstrated so tragically when a chimpanzee kept as a pet in Connecticut attacked a woman, leaving her blind and severely disfigured.
Myth 5: Monkeys and apes kept as exotic pets are not captured from the wild and therefore are not affecting the conservation efforts for primates in the wild.
Fact: Although it is illegal to import primates into the United States for the pet trade because of the disease risk, there is still a market for wild-caught primates for pets in South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. In addition, the expanding bushmeat trade creates numerous orphan animals who end up as pets. The misleading fiction that primates make cuddly pets promotes this trade. Regardless of the source of a primate pet, the message sent by such animals being desired as pets keeps the demand for, and consequently, the supply of animals in motion.