February 23, 2009
More than a Pet Peeve
Congress should swiftly pass the Captive Primate Safety Act
Primates aren't pets
A woman in Stamford, Conn., was critically injured after being attacked by a 200-pound chimpanzee kept as a pet, as she got out of her car to visit the home of the animal's owner.
The chimp was killed by police officers, after the animal all but tore the woman's face and hands off. The wounds were so horrific members of the team who treated her reportedly sought counseling.
Unfortunately, such incidents are not uncommon as "pet" primates have become a reckless and dangerous fad in America. It's estimated that there are 15,000 nonhuman primates—chimps, macaque monkeys, and others—in captivity in the United States. They are often purchased as infants, readily available for sale on a number of Internet sites.
Cute baby monkeys become aggressive as they grow older, and these animals can be highly dangerous. The average homeowner quickly learns that he or she cannot provide the appropriate housing, veterinary care, or diet that primates require. At least 100 people have been injured by captive primates in the last decade—dozens of them children.
In every region of the country, pet primates are a national epidemic. These are highly intelligent and social animals who live long lives. They have complex social and psychological needs, but are typically kept chained or confined in small cages or basements. In order to render the animals less dangerous, owners often mutilate them by removing their teeth.
The threats to public safety and animal welfare are perhaps eclipsed by the public health time bomb just waiting to explode.
Primates can spread dangerous diseases such as herpes B, monkey pox, tuberculosis, and simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the primate form of HIV. Nearly every macaque monkey in captivity carries the herpes B virus.
Recognizing this serious risk, 20 states and the District of Columbia already prohibit the private ownership of primates as pets. But given the patchwork of state and local laws, and the interstate nature of the primate pet trade, what's also needed is a federal response.
The Captive Primate Safety Act - introduced by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and David Vitter (R-La.), and Congressmen Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)—would ban the interstate transportation of apes, monkeys, lemurs, marmosets, and other primates for the pet trade. A similar measure passed the House of Representatives last year by a vote of 302-96, and also cleared a Senate committee, but the Congress adjourned before it could be enacted. The House bill, H.R. 80, may come to the floor for a vote any day.
The Captive Primate Safety Act is similar to a bill that passed Congress unanimously in 2003, prohibiting the interstate commerce in tigers, lions, and other dangerous big cats for the pet trade. Like the big cats bill, the primate bill would crack down on the exotic pet industry but would have no impact on zoos, medical research, and other federally licensed facilities. A broad coalition of scientific and animal welfare organizations—including The Humane Society of the United States, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Born Free USA, and Jane Goodall Institute—support a ban on the trade in pet primates.
We need to end this dangerous monkey business. Primates belong in the wild, not in our backyards and basements. For our own health and safety—as well as the animals'—the U.S. Congress should act swiftly and pass the Captive Primate Safety Act before the next child is mauled by a chimp.
Michael Markarian is executive vice president of The Humane Society of the United States.