Why primates make poor pets

Just in case you had any doubts: primates shouldn't be pets. You don't need a pet monkey and neither does Justin Bieber. Keeping an exotic animal as a pet may seem cool or it may make you different, but it's not worth it. The The International Primatological Society, the American Society of Primatologists, the Humane Society, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the Jane Goodall Institute all speak out against having primates as pets. There are numerous reasons why keeping them as pets is a bad idea for the human involved, the primate acting as a pet, and for primate conservation in general.

One argument that comes up quite a bit for keeping a monkey as a pet is that it protects the species. This just isn't true.  It does nothing to conserve or protect them and in fact causes harm. The primate pet trade can mean these animals are taken from the wild, making them a valuable commodity to be sold rather than an animal to be protected. Mammals traded as exotic pets are three times more likely to be listed on the IUCN Redlist than would be expected at random (Bush, Baker, and MacDonald, 2012). Even those animals that are bred in captivity contribute to the problem because, again, these animals are seen as commodities and not wild animals. Keeping a primate as a pet harms primate conservation and is selfish.

Pet in Slovakia Photo: Kurt Bauschardt
Primates aren't adapted to live in human houses, nor are they suited to living in a backyard chained up. Think of keeping a primate that would normally utilize either terrestrial or arboreal travel throughout the day locked in a small house, and you will begin to understand how sad things look for these animals. Some primates virtually never come down from the trees and are specially adapted to swing through the canopy with their long arms whereas others are vertical clinging and leaping to navigate through the forest. They spend their days finding food, resting, and engaging social behaviors, yet as pets, they're often bored and caged. They don't have to travel to find food or good sleeping sites, they don't watch out for predators, they don't spend time handling and processing their foods, and so forth. (Decent zoos have the ability to provide their animals with enrichment specifically designed to safely get the animals moving and thinking. For example, see Zoo Atlanta's Learning Tree here.) Thirty percent of privately owned primates in Mexico City suffer injuries caused by falls, burns, and even electrocution (Duarte-Quiroga and Estrada, 2003). They can choke themselves on leashes like the one in the left-hand photo.

Primates are complex socially and quite intelligent. Their needs cannot be met by private owners. Those captured abroad and imported illegally have usually been removed from their mothers at a young age (Duarte-Quiroga and Estrada, 2003; Jones-Engel et al., 2004; Wright, 2005) and suffer emotional consequences. Pet primates often have behavioral problems that arise because they are housed in inadequate social environments (Johnson-Delaney, 1991). Squirrel monkeys are often kept as pets, but in the wild these animals live in groups of more than 40 individuals. Capuchins are also a popular choice, but these are especially smart animals. They have an understanding of what is fair and what is not (see entertaining video evidence here) and brown bearded capuchins across northeastern Brazil use stones as hammers and anvils to crack open nuts (Ottoni and Izar, 2008).

Pet spider monkey, Photo: Colin & Sarah Northway
Primates are also dangerous to humans. Some diseases can easily be transferred from primates to humans. Heard of herpes B? It's easily transferred from macaques to humans and isn't detectable through a simple blood test because it travels through the nerves. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, skin lesions and even severe brain damage and death. Because of the close genetic relationship between humans and primates, especially apes, it's entirely possible to transmit diseases to primates and for us to catch something from them. We can catch a viral or bacterial infection from our primate relatives no problem.

Finally, like many exotic animals, infants or juveniles may be cute, cuddly, and docile, adult monkeys can definitely be aggressive. That aggression translates into more of a danger for humans. Monkeys bite and scratch to the point where some owners resort to removing nails or teeth in an effort to control behavior. Not to mention that if you somehow decide a larger animal such as a chimpanzee would make a lovely companion, you're looking at an animal that is much stronger than you and can rip your face off. Remember Charla Nash?

The more people out there who think keeping a primate as a pet is a fun or smart idea, the worse off we will be in terms of conserving these animals. Exotic pets simply shouldn't be pets. It's a disgusting and selfish practice to remove animals from the wild or to contribute to a trade in which these animals are bought and sold. Yes, with unlimited resources you probably could build an excellent home for your pet primate, you could provide proper enrichment, multiple members of the same species for adequate social care, and so forth. But, why would you want to? There are many domesticated animals that need a home and the exotic animal trade threatens so many species. Why would any intelligent human want to contribute to this problem? Just don't do it.

Food for thought:
How does media play a role in portraying primates and other exotic pets as desirable?


Links of interest:
Clever Monkeys series on YouTube showing how intelligent primates are
Lincoln Park Zoo's page on why primates make poor pets
National Geographic News on the perils of keeping primates as pets
Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary message to those who think they want a pet monkey-lots of links within this resource
How viral videos harm cute, threatened animals
Exotic pet trade a threat to wild populations?

References:
Bush, E. R., Baker, S. E., & Macdonald, D. W. (2014). Global trade in exotic pets 2006–2012. Conservation biology, 28(3), 663-676.
Duarte-Quiroga, A. and Estrada, A. 2003. Primates as pets in Mexico City: An assessment of the species involved, source of origin, and general aspects of treatment.. American Journal of Primatology, 61: 53–60. 
Johnson-Delaney, C. A. 1991. The pet monkey: Health care and husbandry guidelines.. Journal of Small Exotic Animal Medicine, 1: 32–37. 
Jones-Engel, L., Engel, G. A., Schillaci, M. A., Kyes, K., Froehlich, J.Paputungan, U. 2004. Prevalence of enteric parasites in pet macaques in Sulawesi, Indonesia. American Journal of Primatology, 62: 71–82.
Keymer, I. F. 1972. The unsuitability of non-domesticated animals as pets.. Veterinary Record, 91: 373–381.
Ottoni EB, Izar P (2008) Capuchin monkey tool use: overview and implications. Evol Anthropol 17: 171–78. doi: 10.1002/evan.20185 
Wright, J. 2005. The primate trade in Indonesia: a rural perspective Manchester, UK: University of Manchester. Unpublished BSc thesis

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