So you want a baby monkey…
“The only one truly qualified to raise a monkey is the monkey’s mother”
Tim Ajax, director Born Free USA
So you’ve seen a video of an adorable baby monkey and now you absolutely need one. Nearly everyone has heard of Darwin, the Ikea monkey, or shared/watched a video of a baby monkey getting a bath or brushing his teeth. Even if you haven’t seen these videos, you will have surely seen movies or commercials featuring mischievous monkeys. Off the top of my head, Friends, Night at the Museum, The Hanover II, We Bought a Zoo, and Go Daddy commercials all feature primates of some sort. Unfortunately, these animals don’t live the long, happy lives we like to tell ourselves. More often than not these animals are kept in poor conditions and suffer from physical and mental stresses. Later in life, when these primates begin to display natural and expected aggression they are (often) sold to research facilities or zoos.
Now I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never wished or dreamt about have a pet monkey or other wild animal. The issue here isn’t being fascinated by these amazing, anthropomorphic animals. The issue is the inability of captive conditions to mimic or even come close to providing the mental, social, and physical stimulation that these animals need. All primate species are highly social, just like humans and they often do not fare well in solitary captivity.
Think about the last time you went to the zoo. Did you see Capuchin monkeys in an exhibit over half a square mile, their natural habitat range? I didn’t think so. Have you ever watched an animal, primate or otherwise, aimlessly pace or rock at a zoo? Probably.
If a zoo, a supposed expert animal care facility, can’t provide these complex animals with the stimulation they need to live happily, what makes us think that the average person can care for these animals?
Sure, baby monkeys are adorable. They are. There’s no denying that they hit a chord with people; they are so much like us it’s impossible to ignore. But they don’t make good pets and don’t deserve the poor treatment they are likely to receive. Moreover, they are wild animals. Monkeys and other primates can carry diseases such as Ebola, TB, and hepatitis. They often become aggressive (natural and due to poor socialization and/or treatments). Their mouths are dirty with large, sharp teeth and powerful jaws, often delivering large, painful bites that can become infected. On top of this, a lot of primate species kept as pets are endangered and partly because of the pet trade.
Capuchins in movies, like the female featured in the Night at the Museum series, have spurred a dramatic increase in the demand for pet Capuchins. In Belize, the illegal pet trade is one of the leading causes, if not the leading cause, of dwindling primate populations. It isn’t hard to find a primate dealer with a quick internet search. It’s just as easy to read their websites and find huge red flags indicating unfavorable conditions of their animals. In about 2 minutes I found someone selling and shipping baby monkeys in the United States. I can purchase a 2 week old Capuchin for the hefty price of around $6,000. Let’s think for a second. Pretty much everyone knows that puppies shouldn’t really be taken from their mother before 8 weeks of age and many times are kept with their mothers longer. Capuchins on the other hand aren’t considered mature until age 4 for females and age 7 for males at which time the males leave their family groups. Capuchins aren’t even fully weaned until around a year old and they don’t leave their mother’s back until around 3 months. They are highly social animals who develop extremely strong bonds between mother and infant. So what makes you think that acquiring a baby monkey at 2 weeks old is healthy for the animal? What’s worse is that these breeders claim to sell bottle-fed monkeys, meaning they were taken from their mothers long before 2 weeks, probably almost immediately. (See Fragaszy et al. (2004). The complete capuchin : the biology of the genus Cebus. for more capuchin information)
While there are some ‘reputable’, licensed breeders in the United States it is just as easy to find an online dealer. Often times, breeders or dealers will tell customers that these monkeys had been abandoned in the wild and were ‘rescued’ or saved. In reality, because babies are taken at such a young age, it is not uncommon for the mother to be shot and killed to gain access to her offspring. When talking about chimpanzees, it’s estimated that in order to collect one baby around 10 adults have to be killed. Again, these are highly social, intelligent animals that come to the protection of their offspring, just as a human would do. The protective behavior and resulting slaughter also occurs in lesser primates such as spider monkeys. Remember these are endangered animals; we can’t afford to lose this many.
I hope it’s clear at this point that having a pet monkey isn’t just a matter of providing him or her the required care. It isn’t about good vs. bad owners. It’s about the damage to the animal and the species as a whole. It’s about the inability of these animals to be happy and healthy living solitary lives. It’s about the ignorance of most owners. It’s about the number of pet primates being sold to zoos and research facilities when they become too big or aggressive. It’s about the hundreds no one hears about who have died at the hands of ill-equipped owners. It’s about the continued propagation of the idea that monkeys are good pets by the media that we view every day. It’s about realizing that you can’t have everything you want. It’s about realizing that these primates are living, feeling, understanding animals and should be treated as such.