Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

Parliamentary Briefing: Primates as Pets (1)

Posted: 1 September 2008

1. Problems presented by use of primates as pets

1.1Primates are wild animals

Primates are wild animals and not suitable for domestication. Prof William McGrew, Department of Biological Anthropology, Cambridge University: "Primates are not domesticated animals, bred by humans over generations to be companions. They are wild creatures, unfortunate enough to be held captive in unnatural circumstances. However well meaning their human captors, primates should not be kept as pets. They need the company of their own kind in settings as naturalistic as possible, if they cannot be returned to the wild."

Furthermore, every primate has evolved in a particular ecological niche, making them integral to the health and balance of their natural habitat.

1.2 Law enforcement agencies in primate species’ range states struggle to
control the primate pet trade

Many of the primate species’ range states prohibit the taking of animals from the wild and many also prohibit the keeping of primates as pets. Law enforcement is, however, difficult in countries where the political and economic situation means that authorities have other priorities. There is evidence that the lawful primate trade in Europe and the US has direct links with the illegal trade in habitat countries. "Where markets exist for legal trade they probably also drive a parallel illegal trade." Furthermore, it is a disincentive to range states to take action if they see that Europe and the US are not taking a strong stance on this issue.

Law enforcement agencies of habitat countries struggle to control the primate pet trade. For instance, in Peru the National Institute of Natural Resources has acknowledged (translated from the original, see references):

"[...]. Also, non human primates (monkeys) were exported for biomedical research and live animals were thoughtlessly exported as pets. To such a degree, that the statistics indicate that for every animal exported, three died during the capture, transport and in holding facilities.

An increase in the commercial traffic of wild animals as pets is added to this. Some people purchase these species thinking that they are helping conservation and, that by purchasing them, they are saving the animals from maltreatment and suffering. Nevertheless, it is necessary to bear in mind that the majority of these specimens will not be able to develop or survive in a domestic environment, even if they are offered all kinds of amenities, because in evolutionary terms they are not domesticated species and are not adapted to human habits, unlike common pets such as the dog or
the cat."

1.3 Global trade

Trafficking rare and exotic animals has become a huge global business, valued at $12 billion a year . Europe is one of the world’s largest markets for wildlife and wildlife products, with demand for pets, fashion accessories, ornaments and medicines. Smuggling wildlife, including many endangered species, is now the third largest illegal cross-border activity after the arms and drug trades.

There is growing evidence that these markets are linked to other illicit trades, especially the bushmeat trade, where primates are often captured opportunistically by hunters; typically babies are sold on after the mother has been shot for human consumption. In turn, hunting is facilitated by the opening of roads for mining or timber industries.

All primates are protected by international regulation and legislation in the animals’ natural range states. The introduction of CITES aimed to afford protective controls over the trade of all primates, in EU CITES regulations Annex A (great apes and some monkeys) and EU CITES Annex B (other monkeys).

According to CITES trade data records, between 1994 and 2000, the numbers of wild-caught primates imported to the UK averaged 116 animals per annum; mostly common squirrel monkeys and brown capuchin monkeys. A search of zoos, research establishments and breeding facilities for these animals found that capuchins were not used in research and there appear to be no designated breeding or supply establishments for both species, and only a few individuals were found in UK zoos.

Furthermore, the internet has greatly facilitated the interstate sale of monkeys in the USA and throughout the world. All types of primate species can be obtained via the internet with no need to show whether or not one is capable of caring for the needs of the primate . Likewise, the internet has spread pet trade links in the UK and Europe.

In the U.S., the Captive Primate Safety Act (H.R. 2964) was passed in the House of Representatives on 11th June 2008 by 302 votes to 96. Introduced by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) in July 2007, this aims at prohibiting the interstate or foreign commerce of non-human primates for pet trade purpose. The act now progresses to a vote in the Senate, and must be signed by the President before it can pass into law.

1.4 The impact of captivity

Primates are intelligent, innately social and complex animals with varying abilities and social requirements. They typically have a long juvenile period in relation to their life span, which allows for the learning of the complex social skills necessary for successful social integration. Interfering with this process can condemn a primate to a life fraught with difficulty as they struggle to adapt to their circumstances.

When captured, or raised in captivity, an animal that has evolved for a life in an extensive and rich environment, nurtured by the company of others of his own species and stimulated by a challenging habitat is then confined, bored and frustrated. This can result in stereotypic behaviours such as neck-twisting, pacing, self-mutilation and teeth-grinding, which are frequently observed in pet and ex-pet primates. In the experience of rescue centres around the world the problems can be profound and long lasting. "Integrating human reared monkeys into social groups is not always possible, and the longer the pet has been kept in a home the more difficult it is to rehabilitate it to live with other monkeys".

In the UK, some privately-owned primates are kept in social groups, but there are currently no regulations to ensure that their environment is suitable for the species or that offspring are guaranteed appropriate care when they are passed on to a new owner.

Every species of monkey or ape has its own particular specialised dietary requirements, be they fruit eaters, leaf eaters or sap extractors, and specialised knowledge is needed for captive care. It is not easy to replicate such a diet in captivity. Wasting marmoset syndrome, WMS, is still a common problem in captive populations and is probably symptomatic of this difficulty. Owners will often provide their pets with food that is part of their own diet. The high sugar, high carbohydrate, low fibre diet of people in the USA and Europe, in itself results in problems such as tooth decay, diabetes and heart disease. Early weaning and poor diet also often lead to dental and bone development problems in primates.

1.5 Zoonotic diseases

In some countries, the risk to people through zoonotic infection is very high and because the origins of many primates cannot be established with certainty, such risk cannot be discounted anywhere in the world. Ebola, monkeypox, herpes B, SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and tuberculosis all pose serious threats to human health. In Colombia in 2005 a monkey was seized from the illegal pet trade, and subsequently found to be carrying the pathogen Mycobacterium africanum, one of the agents responsible of the spread of tuberculosis in both human and primates. The carrying rate of the herpes B virus is so high in some species of macaque – 80 or 90% – that some captive institutions have chosen to euthanize entire populations (e.g. Woburn Safari Park in the UK and others in the US).

On the other hand, the human environment poses other threats through disease. Monkeys and apes may have little or no resistance to the common cold, common cold-sores, measles, influenza and tuberculosis – all transmitted by humans.

1.6 A lifetime problem

Marmosets and tamarins may live for 25-30 years. Brown capuchins and lemurs, among the primates most commonly kept as pets in the UK, can live to be 45 and 27 years old respectively.

Few people realise the financial and time commitment that they are taking on when they are seduced by the appealing face of an infant primate. This means that during the lifetime of a pet monkey the owner can grow up, leave school, go to university, start a career, get married and have children. The evidence shows that few people can provide such a commitment – monkeys and apes are frequently re-homed several times during their lifetime.

Primates spend their entire lives in the company of others in the wild, but who can guarantee that they can provide 24 hour care and company alongside the normal human activities of work, shopping and holidays? For those primates kept as a solitary pet, prolonged periods of isolation are inevitable.

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