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Action for Primates

Long-tailed macaques, photo by Sarah Kite

Non-human Primates in Private Homes ('Pets')

The issue

Infant long-tailed macaques, bleached to make them more 'appealing', for sale as 'pets' in Indonesia; credit JAAN/Sumatra Wildlife Center
Infant long-tailed macaques, for sale as 'pets', Indonesia
bleached to make them more 'appealing'
Photo credit JAAN/Sumatra Wildlife Center

There is a legal and illegal trade in non-human primates as 'pets'. In countries where primates are indigenous, animals are captured from their native habitat with hunters often targeting and killing females with infants. The females are sold for bushmeat and their infants sold into the 'pet' trade, often ending up for sale on roadside stalls or animal markets.

The trade in primates for 'pets' inflicts untold pain and misery and has a major negative impact on wild populations, especially the illegal trade in trafficked primates. A BBC News investigation uncovered a sophisticated network involved in the trafficking of infant chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) from West Africa to be sold as 'pets'.

Another species impacted is the Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus) in Morocco, where it was estimated in 2016 that 200 macaques were smuggled into the European Union each year. In 2016, following intensive campaigning by a coalition of international animal organisations, CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) transferred the species to Appendix I, thereby increasing its level of protection.

Long-tailed macaques kept as 'pets' in backyard, Mauritius
Long-tailed macaques kept as 'pets', Mauritius

People can also be influenced by celebrities, films and online crazes to obtain non-human primates as 'pets'. Such was the case with slow lorises (Nycticebus spp), who became fashionable as 'pets' following their endorsement by celebrities and a frenzy in viral videos. The 'pet' trade has had a major impact on the populations of this nocturnal primate, who are taken from the wild, have their teeth cut or pulled out to make them easier to handle before being sold on the street or in markets.

Non-human primates are wild animals and do not belong in captivity in homes and backyards. They should be living freely with their family and social groups in their native habitat. Depriving them of their freedom, the companionship of others of their kind and keeping them under totally unnatural conditions, is cruel and immoral.

In many countries, such as the UK and USA, the private 'ownership' of non-human primates is legal. It is estimated that there are around 5,000, including capuchins, lemurs, marmosets and squirrel monkeys kept as 'pets' in the UK. In the USA, non-human primates are bred commercially to be sold as 'pets'; infants are removed from their mothers and advertised for sale dressed in human children's clothes. They may even have their tails removed to make it easier to put on diapers.

Reputable humane societies, veterinary medical associations, including the largest veterinary organisation worldwide – the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) – and the British Veterinary Association along with organisations such as the American Society of Primatologists, Association of Zoos & Aquariums and the International Primatological Society are opposed to the keeping of non-human primates in private homes, largely because it is considered inhumane and a public health problem. Moreover, the AVMA believes even using these individuals as service or assistance animals is inappropriate for similar reasons.

How non-human primates suffer

Wedge-capped capuchin in private home, USA
Wedge-capped capuchin in private home, USA

People cannot provide these individuals with an environment that is remotely like what the animals need based on their species and social status. Even if bred in captivity, non-human primates will continue to have the instincts and behavioural needs that cannot in any meaningful way be satisfied by human beings.

Essentially all non-human primate species kept as 'pets' are intensely social animals whose physical and psychological health are inextricably linked to maintaining strong family units. They will, therefore, suffer considerably in captivity, where they are usually kept singly and always under conditions that fall far short of what is required for their welfare and well-being. They are not, however, the only ones who suffer. When taken from a free-living situation, this results in fractured families and social bonds. This causes extreme stress and distress for those left behind.

Non-human primates kept in a human environment cannot thrive physically and emotionally. Captive individuals experience stress, which often escalates into distress. The forcible removal of infants from their mother, often at birth, and raised in a human household, results in abnormal development and the conditions in captivity lead to severe psychological and physical problems. Such individuals display abnormal behaviour, often stereotypical in nature – a repetitive purposeless movement – and include including circling, pacing, rocking, side-to-side movements, somersaulting or spinning, so-called floating limb movements, self-directed behaviour often resulting in hair loss (alopecia), self-injurious behaviour resulting in sometimes serious lacerations of limbs or other body parts (self-mutilation) and states of being obtunded (depressed). These behaviours are all abnormal and indicate maladaptation of the individuals to their environment.

White-headed capuchin in private home, USA
White-headed capuchin in private home, USA

A study on chimpanzees demonstrated the detrimental life-long consequences that keeping them as 'pets' can have on their mental health. Decades after being rescued, two chimpanzees, who were separated from their mothers and other chimpanzees at an early age, still displayed stereotypical behaviours as a result of the psychological and physical trauma they suffered when young.

Furthermore, because of the unique needs of these individuals, no amount of regulation can adequately protect them and ensure their welfare and well-being when they are kept captive as 'pets' in private homes. It is simply not possible to provide for the requisite social and physical conditions.

Danger to people

When kept in captivity as 'pets', non-human primates can become a danger to people. As they mature and become physically stronger, they become unpredictable and aggressive towards humans and can cause serious injuries. To deal with this aggression, people will often resort to cruel means such as removing teeth and nails in the erroneous belief that this will prevent injuries [§, §]. These mutilated individuals, however, can and do still inflict injuries on people. Ultimately, if the animals become too aggressive and a problem, they may be killed or permanently confined in small cages. Given that many species live for over 20 years, this leads to an extended period of suffering.

Non-human primates may be a source of disease for people (zoonoses), although this requires close contact and the animals are also likely to contract something from people. Such contact is part of the consequences of human encroachment into their habitat, and hunting or trapping for the bushmeat and the 'pet' industry. For example, an analysis at Stanford University has revealed how the loss of tropical forests in Uganda puts people at greater risk of physical interactions with wild non-human primates and the viruses they carry.

Way forward

Keeping non-human primates as 'pets' undeniably compromises the health and welfare of the animals. Furthermore, keeping them under these conditions creates a substantial danger and health risk to human beings. Non-human primates already in private homes should either be rehabilitated and returned to their natural homes, if possible, or at least be re-homed to genuine sanctuaries where they will have the opportunity to live with others of their kind in an enriched environment.

Cited references:

  1. Ajax, Tim and King, Barbara J. 2020-02-20. "Louie's Story: Why Monkeys Should Never Be "Pets"" Sentient Media accessed 2020-06-20
  2. AAP. undated. "Illegal wildlife trade - Barbary macaques" Animal Advocacy and Protection accessed 2020-04-20
  3. ASP. 2021-04-20. "Private Ownership of Primates" American Society of Primatologists. accessed 2021-06-10
  4. …ASP discourages all individuals from privately owning primates for non-scientific or non-educational purposes and from breeding and selling or otherwise supplying nonhuman primates for non-scientific or non-educational purposes.
  5. AVMA. 2019-01-01. "Nonhuman primates as assistance animals" American Veterinary Medical Association. accessed 2019-10-26
  6. The AVMA does not support the use of nonhuman primates as assistance animals because of animal welfare concerns, the potential for serious injury, and zoonotic risks.
  7. AZA. 2016-11-05. "Why wild animals don't make good pets" 2 pp. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. accessed 2020-03-14
  8. Born Free. 2020. "PET PRIMATES" Born Free accessed 2020-04-20
  9. BVA. 2014-01-14. "BVA submission to efra [sic] inquiry into the keeping of primates as pets" British Veterinary Association. accessed 2020-03-28
  10. We support a ban on the keeping of primates as pets and the only exception to that position would be to allow individuals who are working in partnership with accredited zoos, to breed primates for conservation purposes.
  11. Garrod, Ben. 20160228. "No more monkey business: why primates should never be pets" The Guardian accessed 2020-06-20
  12. Golab, Gail. 2008-03-11. "Testimony of Dr. Gail Golab, Director of the Animal Welfare Division of the American Veterinary Medical Association, on the Captive Primate Safety Act" 7 pp. American Veterinary Medical Association. accessed 2020-03-14
  13. Because nonhuman primates pose significant risks to the health of the public and domestic animals – including the possibility of severe injury to the humans and domestic animals with which they come in contact – the AVMA opposes private ownership of these animals. Furthermore, the AVMA also does not support the use of nonhuman primates as assistance or service animals because of animal welfare concerns, the potential for serious injury, and zoonotic risks.
  14. IAR. 2014-09-22. "International Animal Rescue share Animals Indonesia's shocking video of a slow loris' teeth being cut" International Animal Rescue accessed 2021-06-10
  15. IPS. 2019-01-01. "Private ownership of nonhuman primates" International Primatological Society. accessed 2019-09-02
  16. The International Primatological Society therefore opposes the holding of nonhuman primates in captivity by individuals for any non-scientific, non-certified educational or non-registered/accredited sanctuary purposes, including the possession of nonhuman primates as pets or companion animals as well as engaging in breeding and trading for these purposes.
  17. Jordan, Rob. 2020-04-08. "Stanford researchers show how forest loss leads to spread of disease" Stanford News accessed 2020-04-21
  18. Lopresti-Goodman, Stacy M.; Kameka, Marjanne and Dube, Ashlynn. 2013-01-01. "Stereotypical behaviors in chimpanzees rescued from the African bushmeat and pet trade" Behavioral Sciences 3:1-20.
  19. Our results highlight some lesser known harms of the bushmeat trade and the detrimental life-long consequences that keeping chimpanzees as "pets" can have on their mental health.
  20. Novak, Melinda A.; Hamel, Amanda F.; Kelly, Brian J.; Dettmer, Amanda M. and Meyer, Jerrold S. 2013-01-31. "Stress, the HPA axis, and nonhuman primate well-being: A review" Applied Animal Behaviour Science 143(2-4):135-149.
  21. Seaboch, Melissa S. and Cahoon, Sydney N. 2021-09-08. "Pet primates for sale in the United States" PLoS One 16(9):e0256552.
  22. Research has shown that when people see primates outside of their natural habitat, it can increase their desire to own a primate themselves (which can drive the extraction of primates from the wild in habitat countries), lead them to believe they are not endangered, and decreases the likelihood they will contribute to conservation [58,59,89,90]; all of these will impact wild populations.

    Our research goal was to investigate the primate pet trade in the United States. …there are an estimated 15,000 pet primates in the United States and the demand for exotic pets in general has been rising. … We collected data from six exotic pet-trade websites twice a month for 12 months. … We recorded 551 pet primates for sale between June 2019-June 2020… Almost two-thirds of the pet primates for sale were male… The median price was $3,800 though price was highly variable, even for the same taxa. … There are several potential drivers for the primate pet trade, including media influence, fashion/status, and profitable breeding though these are not mutually exclusive. Primates do not make good pets and even when captive-bred, pet primates impact the conservation of their wild counterparts. Advertisement campaigns focusing on disease transmission and legal consequences and a federal ban on pet primate ownership are two avenues to pursue to end the ownership of pet primates in the United States.
  23. Shukman, David. 2017-01-31. "The secret trade in baby chimps: Full report" BBC News accessed 2020-12-12
  24. Soulsbury, Carl D.; Iossa, Graziella; Kennell, Sarah and Harris, Stephen. 2009-01-01. "The welfare and suitability of primates kept as pets" Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 12(1):1-20.
  25. van Uhm, Daan. 2016-01-01. "Monkey business: the illegal trade in Barbary macaques" Journal of Trafficking, Organized Crime and Security 2(1):36-49.

Uncited references:

  1. Aldrich, Brooke Catherine and Neale, David. 2021-01-01. "Pet Macaques in Vietnam: An NGO's Perspective" Animals : An Open Access Journal from MDPI 11(1):E60.
  2. Norconk, Marilyn A.; Atsalis, Sylvia; Tully, Gregg; Santillán, Ana Maria; Waters, Siân; Knott, Cheryl D.; Ross Stephen R.; Shanee, Sam and Stiles, Daniel. 2020-01-01. "Reducing the primate pet trade: Actions for primatologists" American Journal of Primatology 82(1):e23079.