Apes as “pets” – again

I am putting “pets” between quotation marks, because in many cases apes in the household end up in a miserable cage in the basement, because they are in fact not suitable as pets. And not only apes end up in such situations, but also much smaller monkeys, which have little hesitation to bite their owners or visitors.

I was surprised that anyone would keep an adult male chimpanzee, which is really not suitable as a pet. No primate is suitable, even small monkeys are usually detoothed or else locked up in a cage, and chimpanzees are notoriously into power, so will always try to improve their position. They may not do so with their owner, who has raised them, but everyone else is fair game. Read for example the book on Nim Chimsky, and you will see a lot of efforts to control him, and the way he imposes himself, and this is just a young chimp. So, I was not surprised at all at the recent incident in Connecticut. The brutality of it indicates that this adult male chimpanzee, Travis, saw the woman as enemy or rival. This was not the sort of well-controlled punitive action that a male will undertake to make clear what he wants: this was an assault, similar to the way chimps in the field attack outsiders.

Since the tragic case of Travis, who literally removed the face of a woman visitor to his owner’s home, there have been many articles in the press, including the following from Jane Goodall in the Los Angeles Times (Feb 25, 2009):

Loving chimps to death

Last week in Stamford, Conn., a chimpanzee named Travis was shot and killed after he mauled a friend of his owner. The chimpanzee lived with a widow, eating lobster and ice cream at the table, wearing human clothes and entertaining himself with a computer and television.

The entertainment industry and pet owners rarely, if ever, provide for the long-term care of chimpanzees. Zoos don’t want them because they have not learned to interact with others of their kind. So most of these poor creatures spend the rest of their lives — as much as 50 years or more — in small cages in circuses, roadside attractions and, yes, even in the homes of individuals who lack the means to provide for them.

Meanwhile, more infant chimpanzees are bred to maintain the supply for the entertainment industry.

The use of chimpanzees in entertainment and advertising not only condemns chimpanzees to lives they were not meant to live, it makes it hard for people to believe that these apes are actually endangered in the wild. But they are.

I myself spoke about this issue in a Scientific American interview as well as in my blog on Huffington Post (see also the 187 commentaries!).

But now there is better news. ChimpHaven (near Shreveport, Louisiana) is a sanctuary for lab chimps, but has also taken in some “emergency” chimpanzees. CH has now set up a rescue fund to take care of those. The first rescue chimpanzee CH has taken in is Henry (pictured on the left), who spent 15 years of his life in a dirty cage. Last November, Henry was found emaciated and vomiting blood, living in the garage of a private home. There are hundreds of such sad cases in the nation, and if CH receives enough support it will be able to help other abandoned or mistreated chimps. See the ChimpHaven website to read more about Henry and his improved situation.

These rescue efforts combine with the law change that tightens the pet trade, making the private ownership of primates a lot more difficult. Perhaps we will finally see a serious effort to stop people from keeping primates as pets.

Why do people keep primates as pets, anyway?

They want something different from others, and they think that primates are cute. They have been misled by the entertainment industry which still thinks that showing apes in sitcoms or movies is a way to draw attention and get cheap laughs. No one seems to realize that those “funny” primates in the shows have handlers with them with cattle prods or other ways of punishing their charges and that the grimaces of these apes are more often of fear than that they signify pleasure. There is nothing funny about their performances for anyone who knows apes. Apart from conveying the wrong idea that these are nice, playful animals, there is also the fact that they misrepresent them as caricatures of us, so never in the best possible light.

Let’s hope that this insanity will end one day.

— Frans de Waal