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.

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