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The Perils of Keeping Monkeys as Pets

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
September 16, 2003
 
Thinking about acquiring a monkey to keep as an adorable pet? Think carefully. Thousands of nonhuman primates are hosted as companions in people's homes across the United States—relationships that often end in tears.

As babies these big-eyed, furry creatures may seem harmless. But once they reach sexual maturity, experts warn, monkeys can become aggressive. And some primates harbor deadly diseases, like herpes B, that they can pass on to human primates via bites and scratches.


Many people remain undaunted by the risks of adopting primates in their homes. Viewed as status symbols or substitute children, monkeys are commonly sold for thousands of dollars through newspaper ads and the Internet.

"We're looking for a baby monkey to love and spoil," writes one woman from Orlando, Florida, on an electronic bulletin board. "We are unable to have anymore children and have a void in our hearts. We need a baby to love!"

A quick Internet search reveals a thriving trade in just about every species of primate, from capuchins to chimpanzees. Prices range from U.S. $1,500 to $50,000. Even endangered species, like Diana monkeys, lemurs, and gibbons, are for sale.

The Allied Effort to Save Other Primates, an international coalition of individuals and organizations dedicated to protecting monkeys and apes, estimates there are 15,000 primates kept as pets in the United States.

No federal laws regulate private ownership, and only nine states ban individuals from owning nonhuman primates.

Health Concerns

Veterinarian Kevin Wright of the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona says primates are highly intelligent, emotionally complex, and long-lived animals that need to be around their own kind in order to develop normally.

"If you try to keep them as pets you're creating a mentally disturbed animal in 99.9 percent of the cases," said Wright, director of conservation, science and sanctuary at the zoo. "The animal will never be able to fit in any other home. Never learn how to get along with other monkeys. And, more often than not, will end up with a lot of behavioral traits that are self-destructive."

Zoonotic diseases are also a concern. Human cold sores, he said, can kill smaller monkeys like marmosets and tamarins. While macaques can carry herpes B, a potentially fatal virus to humans. Most people are infected through bites or scratches.

The test used to determine if a monkey has the virus is "good but not 100 percent accurate," said Wright. If a monkey tests negative, many zoos still manage the animal as if it has the virus, he said, because the consequence of a false test can be deadly to human handlers.

The health and safety hazards associated with exposure to monkeys and other nonhuman primates prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 1975 to prohibit them from being imported into the United States for use as pets.

Today, monkeys offered for sale are surplus animals from zoos and laboratories or from breeders, says April Truitt, founder of The Primate Rescue Center in Kentucky.

The babies are pulled from their mothers as early as three days old and given an inanimate object, such as a stuffed animal or blanket as a surrogate mother. Most of these young primates, say experts, develop aberrant behaviors such as rocking, self-grasping, and digit sucking.

Once monkeys reach sexual maturity they can become dangerous, says Wright, of the Phoenix Zoo. Smaller monkeys become sexually mature around 18 to 24 months. Larger primates, like orangutans and chimps, reach puberty between five and ten years of age.

Aggressive Displays

In an attempt to establish dominance, monkeys may attack their human family members. Once owners realize they can't handle the animals, they look to place them in other homes.

Zoos don't take former pets. Some unwanted primates end up in sanctuaries to live out their remaining days. Sadly, most end up being sold and resold over and over again. Others are sent to laboratories or used in breeding programs.

As pets grow older, stronger and more unpredictable, some owners may attempt to change the animal's natural behavior. Sanctuary owners say those tactics include confinement in small enclosures, chaining, shocking, beating, and removal of teeth and nails to prevent scratching and biting.

"Primates are wild animals," said Truitt of the Primate Rescue Center. "No amount of surgical mutilation, training, or beating will ever change that."

An interview request was declined by Charles Stonecipher, vice president of the Simian Society of America, an organization primarily composed of private owners. Another interview request sent to President Walt Gresham was unanswered as of press time.

On average, Truitt receives two phone calls a day from people who want to relinquish their animals. Primatology students also call requesting permission to visit the sanctuary, which has more than 50 primates, to study animal behavior.

"What they want to study is normal behaviors, but there's so little of that going on at our place because all of our animals are ex-pets or lab animals that were reared in isolation," Truitt said. "There's not a normal thing about them. Not how they eat; not how they relate to others."

The influx of unwanted animals has become overwhelming for the dozens of sanctuaries in the United States.

Five years ago, when Truitt couldn't house an animal at her sanctuary she'd call another one and easily place it. Today, she said that's not the case. Most sanctuaries are full, or near capacity.

"It's becoming an epidemic," said Kari Bagnall, founder of Jungle Friends. The Florida sanctuary receives e-mails and phone calls every day from people wanting to get rid of their monkeys.

"We're full right now," she said. "I don't know where they're all going to end up."

Former Las Vegas organ grinder Sony Rickson, who owns four capuchin monkeys ranging in age from 7 to 12, created the Monkey Moms Web site to educate potential owners, and gets 200 e-mails a day seeking advice and guidance.

"I think it takes a certain type of person to own a monkey," she said. "If you're committed, I don't have a problem with it."

Aggression, though, is a problem. Rickson said she was attacked just a few days ago by one of her capuchins.

"You never know which ones will grow up and attack and which ones won't," she said. "I have one that I worked with for seven years and I'd go everywhere with her—and all of a sudden one day she just turned on me. I have another one that I raised from a baby who wouldn't even think of biting me."

When asked about the use of shock collars, Rickson said she did not know of anyone with a small monkey that uses them. Removing all of the animal's teeth, though, is a common practice, she said, especially amongst organ grinders.

"If a person is doing it as a last resort to protect themselves, I don't have a problem with it," said Rickson, who quickly added that she has not removed her pets' teeth. "It doesn't stop the monkey from eating what it's suppose to be eating."

Currently she is working on opening a placement and rescue center for primates in California.

If given the chance to turn back the hands of time, she said her life would be different.

"I wouldn't have a pet monkey," she said. "It's sad to watch the depression they go through if they're not getting enough one-on-one attention. These are the types of animals that should be left in the jungle."

Readers who would like to comment on this story, especially those who own pet primates, are welcome to send the editor an e-mail. We will consider publishing a selection of letters that reflect different opinions.

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