July 29, 2005
The Captive Primate Safety Act aims to cap the dangers of primates as pets
By Beth Preiss
Thursday, March 3, 2005 was supposed to be a day of celebration for St. James Davis and his wife, LaDonna. That day they drove to Animal Haven Ranch, an exotic animal facility near Bakersfield, California, to visit their former pet, Moe, a 150-pound chimpanzee, on his 39th birthday. The couple even brought a cake.
What was meant to be a pleasant reunion turned violent when two other chimpanzees, who had been used in the entertainment industry, escaped from their enclosure. Two of three gates in the enclosure had been left unlocked, and the chimpanzees figured out how to open the third. They pounced on the Davises, inflicting life-threatening injuries on St. James before the animals were shot dead by a facility worker. After at least a dozen surgeries and three months in a medically induced coma, St. Jame Davis began a slow road to recovery. In 2009, he remains confined to a wheelchair, his hands mangled, his nose gone, and missing one eye.
His injuries sound eerily similar to those suffered in February 2009 by Charla Nash, who was attacked when she went to help a friend entice a 200-pound chimpanzee, Travis, back inside the Connecticut home where he was kept as a pet. Police officers called to the violent scene shot Travis dead, and Nash was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. She, too, lost much of her face and hands; she lost sight in both eyes.
Eight days after Nash was attacked, federal lawmakers took action to stop the interstate trade in chimpanzees and other primates sold as pets. The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Captive Primate Safety Act, H.R. 80, introduced by U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. Companion legislation in the U.S. Senate, introduced by U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and David Vitter, R-La., was approved by a Senate Committee in May 2009 and awaits a vote by the full Senate. The Captive Primate Safety Act was first introduced in 2005, just two weeks after the attack on Davis.
The legislation is long overdue. Movies, TV shows, and commercials inundate audiences with images of cute monkeys and apes. We see chimpanzees dressed as children as if they're members of the family. Their intelligence makes these animals appear to be compatible with human lifestyles.
Whether because of media influence or other factors, there is now a booming pet trade in monkeys and apes in the United States. An estimated 15,000 primates are in private hands, despite the fact that primates can live for decades and require special care every single year.
Sooner or later, these private primate owners will learn a simple truth: The media image is pure fantasy. The reality is that nonhuman primates are dangerous, carry life-threatening diseases, and cannot be cared for properly as pets in the home.
The attacks in California and Connecticut demonstrate just how dangerous these animals can be. As infants, nonhuman primates may appear cooperative and easy to handle, but they inevitably grow larger, stronger, and more aggressive. They can easily overpower larger human beings. Gentle one minute, they may lash out suddenly when frightened or frustrated.
Biting and scratching are natural behaviors for these animals, and their large teeth can inflict serious injury. Once past adolescence, primates are difficult for even professional trainers to control. Apes used in the entertainment industry—like Ollie and Buddy, the teenage chimps who attacked the Davises—are routinely "retired" by about 8 years old.
Even the Davises' Moe, who did not take part in the attack, was removed by officials from the couple's home in 1999 because he bit off part of a woman's finger.
According to the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, approximately 100 people were injured by primates from 1995 to 2005, including 29 children. Many more incidents may have occurred but gone unreported. Most of these incidents involved primates kept as pets. A pdf of recent incidents can be found here.
"There is general understanding among primatologists that monkeys, apes, and other nonhuman primates do not make good pets," says Geza Teleki, primatologist and founder of the Committee for Conservation and Care of Chimpanzees. "People miscalculate their strength and aggressiveness. You might buy a baby and be happy for a while. As the baby grows up, the situation becomes dangerous. People end up abusing and locking up animals to control the situation, which only makes the problem worse."
The threat of disease
In addition to the threat of physical injury from nonhuman primates, the animals also carry a number of zoonotic diseases—those that can be transmitted from animals to humans—such as Herpes B, Salmonella, shigella, and tuberculosis. In Africa, gorilla and chimpanzee carcasses in the bushmeat trade have tested positive for Ebola, one of the most lethal viruses in the world.
While employees at professionally run zoos, sanctuaries, and research institutions are specially trained to minimize the health risks associated with working with primates, the average pet owner is ill-equipped to prevent the spread of highly serious diseases.
For example, most macaque monkeys naturally carry the deadly Herpes B virus, which can be transmitted to humans through scratches, bites, and body fluids. Infected monkeys usually show few symptoms, but in humans the infection can be fatal. In 1997, a worker at a primate center whose eye was splashed with body fluids from a macaque died from a B virus infection.
In 2005, when an Ohio truck driver stopped to avoid hitting a runaway macaque, the monkey jumped into the truck, bit the driver, and fled. One animal expert told a detective on the case that because of the disease risk, he would rather have a lion or tiger on the loose than this kind of monkey.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines for preventing B virus infection in monkey handlers call for minimizing direct handling of macaques. So it's no surprise that government researchers say macaques are unsuitable as pets. When Dateline NBC asked then-CDC veterinarian and epidemiologist Stephanie Ostrowski how likely it was that an adult macaque pet would bite you, scratch you, or spit on you, she responded, "It's a dead certainty."
An article in the July 2005 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases singles out nonhuman primates as a particular infectious disease threat to humans. The story documents the first case in Asia of simian foamy virus (SFV) transmission from a free-ranging population of macaques to a human. Although SFV has not yet resulted in disease in people, the transmission from a nonhuman to a human primate "points to a broad public health concern: other enzootic primate infectious agents may cross the species barrier and cause significant morbidity and mortality in human populations." In Canada, people who work with monkeys cannot donate blood because of the potential risk of SFV, as well as yet unknown diseases.
Inconvenient and inhumane
Captive primates require specialized care, including specific diets, the companionship of other nonhuman primates, and large enclosures that allow for climbing and swinging—essentially the conditions that would be provided by their natural habitat. But most pet owners simply cannot meet these needs. They also may have a hard time finding veterinarians who are qualified and willing to care for these exotic animals.
The stresses of caring for a primate can lead some owners to choose inhumane shortcuts. For example, to prevent bite wounds, an owner may have a monkey's teeth removed. But even that extreme measure is no guarantee against injury.
And it's not just physical danger that makes nonhuman primates difficult to handle. Monkeys will shred furnishings, unlock and open doors, and relieve themselves wherever they want. Pet owners often turn to brutal means to try to control the animals, or look for ways to get rid of them.
Their options are limited. Most zoos will not take pets, and reputable sanctuaries are at or near capacity. These animals may end up confined in small cages, sold for research or to pitiful roadside menageries, or put back into the cycle of breeding and adding to the exotic animal trade.
The pet trade in primates routinely displays little patience or compassion for its animals. Infant primates may be taken from their mothers and sold when only days old. This wrenching event—for both mother and baby—is just the beginning of the emotional deprivation animals bred for the pet trade must endure.
Infants sold as pets for a quick profit are deprived of all that is natural to them—for decades, since monkeys can live up to 30 years and apes twice as long. These animals can easily outlive their owners, and after a life as a solitary pet, it's difficult or impossible to rehabilitate them to live with other animals.
The Captive Primate Safety Act
Because the pet primate trade is largely unregulated, it is impossible to determine precisely how many of these animals are privately owned, or the conditions in which most live. But it is known that nonhuman primates are readily available from breeders, dealers, mail-order catalogs, and even over the Internet. Consequently, much of the trade involves shipping animals across state lines.
While primates can be imported into the United States for education, exhibition, and research purposes, it is illegal to import them for the pet trade because of the health risks they pose. In addition, 20 states—California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, and Washington—prohibit owning these animals as pets. But the patchwork of state laws makes federal legislation necessary.
"The Captive Primate Safety Act sends an important message that primates should not be sold as pets," says Richard Farinato, senior director of captive wildlife for The HSUS. "It will complement state laws to lessen the availability of primates."
The bills would add monkeys, apes (which include chimpanzees and orangutans), lemurs, and other nonhuman primates to the list of animals who cannot be transported across state lines for the pet trade. The new law would exempt zoos and other federally licensed commercial operations.
The bill is similar to the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which Congress passed in 2003 without a single dissenting vote, and which bars interstate commerce in lions, tigers, and other big cats for the pet trade.
"We urge Congress to pass the Captive Primate Safety Act quickly before the next person is injured or killed by a pet primate," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS. "Monkeys, chimpanzees, and other nonhuman primates belong in the wild, not in our backyards and basements."
What you can do
- Don't purchase or adopt a nonhuman primate as a pet. If you already have a primate pet you can no longer handle, contact your local shelter for advice.
- Urge your federal legislators to cosponsor and support S. 462 and H.R. 80, the Captive Primate Safety Act. This law will put a stop to interstate sales of nonhuman primates as pets.
- If you live in a state that allows primates as pets, urge your state legislators to enact a ban. Primates are allowed as pets in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri (local registration required), Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Other states allow them with a permit or prohibit possession of all or some primates as pets.
Beth Preiss is director of The HSUS's Exotic Pets Campaign.