The Perils of Primate Pets

Last week, ABC Primetime aired a segment about people keeping capuchin monkeys as pets, primarily as surrogate children. Though we make it clear on our website that Living Links in no way condones private ownership of primates, we would like to take a moment to reiterate this point.

For a summary of the ABC segment, click here.

First, primates are wild animals and will never be domesticated like cats and dogs. The process of domestication happens over many generations, not over the lifetime of one individual. A pet monkey will always be a wild animal, no matter how docile they appeared as an infant.

Second, while many monkeys are small and may appear “childlike,” they mature into adults in a few short years. Many people purchase monkeys as a sort of “child replacement” after their own children have left the house, assuming that the monkey will fill the space their children left, while being less responsibility than a human child. The rationale many give for purchasing a monkey instead of having a child is that 1) they do not have time for a human child or 2) they do not like that their own children grew up. Monkey children too require enormous amounts of time and grow up much faster than a human. Humans tend to carry their children with them for years. However, monkeys are often carried by their monkey mothers for about one year. After which they are able to move around on their own and are resistant to unwanted attention. In reviewing video clips of the ABC segment, the monkeys were often trying to pull away and biting at their human mother to escape. Being constantly held or contained is foreign to a wild monkey, even one that is raised in a human home.

A further complication in the monkey life span is that monkeys, particularly males, can become quite aggressive after reaching sexual maturity, something many owners have discovered after being attacked by their pet. This aggression is a natural behavior and a further reason why monkeys, and any other wild animal, do not make good pets. It is dangerous both to the monkey and the humans around them. Click here to see some rather graphic pictures of what can happen when pet monkeys are aggressive toward their owners.

In every species, one of the sexes leaves the social group in which they were born after reaching sexual maturity. It is no surprise then, when an adult male capuchin turns on its human family, as their natural instinct is to leave the group. And while they are smaller than a human, monkeys are much faster and capable of inflicting serious harm with their nails and teeth. Many monkey owners who have experienced the pain of this natural aggression have resorted to extreme measures to keep their monkey as a pet. They remove all of the monkey’s teeth and possibly even the nails. This is one of the most disturbing realities of private monkey ownership. It is ludicrous to claim that a monkey is a surrogate child while removing its teeth and nails. This would never be allowed in a human child, so why for a surrogate monkey child? While you may be protecting yourself, ask yourself why you need protecting. Biting is a very natural monkey behavior, something that they regularly do to others in their group, even their own mother, as a way to express disapproval or assert their dominance.

Third, people need to be aware of how monkeys are brought into the pet trade industry. If they are bred in the US, the mothers are darted (sedated) and the infant ripped off to be sold as a pet. We are well aware of the deep and long lasting psychological damage that is inflicted upon orphaned human children and the results are similar in non-human primates. One can only imagine what the result would be if not only removed from their mother, but from all contact with their own species. In order to develop normally, a monkey must have contact with members of their species and ideally their mother. Infants who are removed from their social group early often develop abnormal behaviors, such as rocking and may even inflict harm to themselves (self-injurious behavior).


A capuchin whose teeth have been removed by its owner.

The situation is even worse when monkeys are imported from countries where they are indigenous. Pet traders will go into a forest to get baby monkeys. The mother and any others who attempt to interfere, are often killed when removing a dependent infant. One of our graduate students, Colleen Gault, is currently in Costa Rica studying groups of white-faced capuchins. Over the past 4 years they have lost several mother-offspring pairs. While they have not directly witnessed the poaching of these individuals, no other adults have disappeared during that time, making the particular disappearance of females with dependent offspring quite suspect. For every infant that is brought into the pet trade, the mother and others in the group likely lost their lives in the process. In addition, not every infant survives, so for all that do make it to sale, several other individuals have died. For those studying monkeys in their natural environment, it is upsetting to spend years following individuals, putting together life histories, only to have their animals’ lives end at the hands of a poacher because someone thought it would be cute to have a baby monkey. And while it is illegal to import primates into the United States, the demand for them as pets continues to promote the capture of primates in the wild.

Lastly, there are not enough sanctuaries equipped to take in all of the privately owned monkeys that are eventually given up by their human family when they realize they can no longer care for them. Most of the sanctuaries that take in pet primates are at full capacity and have waiting lists. With the average lifespan of a monkey being 30 years, very few on the waiting list will ever get in. Who knows what the families will resort to if they are already at the point of surrendering their animal, but unable to find a place to retire them to. Often the animal is confined to a cage and given little attention, and is essentially abandoned, resulting in long-term psychological damage. Unfortunately, students interested in primate behavior are unable to study the primates at these sanctuaries because there is very little normal behavior exhibited by the monkeys after being raised in isolation from members of their own species. It is nearly impossible to rehabilitate these individuals to living with other monkeys after being deprived of appropriate social models. This also puts enormous strain on the people who work at these sanctuaries as they are not dealing with normal primates, but ones who are suffering from years of abuse and isolation.

While we primarily focused on monkeys, the pet trade industry is a serious problem for all primates, including the great apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. The trauma and suffering described above is true for all primate species, and the apes can live twice as long as monkeys, up to 60 years. At least 1 in 4 of the 625 species of primates are endangered and are on the verge of extinction. A list of the 25 most critically endangered primates can be found here: http://www.save-the-primates.org.au/fac … s-list.htm
Unfortunately, many of the species listed are found in people’s homes and in the entertainment industry, having been purchased and imported illegally, causing irreversible damage to these dwindling populations. The bushmeat trade also contributes to the pet trade industry because many infants are left orphaned and then sold at local markets as pets.

Again, the members of the Living Links Center do not condone private ownership of primates and this list only touches on a few reasons why this is the case. Primates are indeed amazing creatures, but we should do everything we can to preserve them in the wild, and keep them out of private homes.


A capuchin in its natural habitat.

For more information on the pet trade industry and the bushmeat trade, please see:

The Problem with Pet Monkeys

The Perils of Keeping Monkeys as Pets – National Geographic

Fact and Fiction: Monkeys and Apes as Pets – The Humane Society

Bushmeat Crisis Task Force


Bushmeat – The Human Society

Inside the Exotic Animal Trade

Primate sanctuaries that rescue pet monkeys and victims of the bushmeat trade:

Ngamba Island

Primate Rescue Center

Jungle Friends

Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation

-The Living Links Center

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One thought on “The Perils of Primate Pets

  1. Having any animal in your possession is a responsibility. Some people fail to undertand that and are unable to look after the animals. Worse still are those who are intentially creul to the animal!

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