By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
In Arizona, a woman’s marmoset monkey attacked her newborn grandchild, scratching and biting the baby’s face and splitting open one nostril. In New York, a neighbor’s pet capuchin monkey bit off a 22-month-old girl’s finger when the child stuck her fingers through a backyard fence. In Tennessee, an escaped macaque monkey attacked and severely injured a woman washing a car in her driveway; the woman’s injuries required surgery and doctors told her she was lucky she wasn’t killed.
Primates are not pets; they are wild animals. Even the smallest primates are incredibly strong and can inflict serious injuries with their teeth and nails, including puncture wounds, severe lacerations and infections. And as these unfortunate incidents illustrate, keeping them as pets can be a recipe for disaster.
That’s why the Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund are supporting a bill in Congress, the Captive Primate Safety Act, H.R. 1776, that would make it difficult for individuals not qualified to handle primates to buy and keep them as pets. The bill, introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., would prohibit the interstate and foreign commerce of these animals for the exotic pet trade. It would not impact zoos, universities or wildlife sanctuaries.
Today, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on this important bill. Supporters highlighted the many problems caused by the pet trade in primates, both for the animals and for people who come in contact with them. Michael Sutton, former president of the California Fish and Game Commission and former special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, testified in support of the bill.
There have been 540 documented safety incidents involving captive primates in the United States since 1990, and more than half have been attributed to primates kept as pets. Many more incidents likely go unreported. And it’s not just their owners the animals have attacked. People have been injured by escaped pet primates while riding bikes, playing outdoors, eating at restaurants, visiting parks and festivals, walking dogs, jogging, and shopping at malls and grocery stores.
Approximately 25 states now prohibit keeping some or all primate species as pets, but these laws have limitations. Primates are also easily available from exotic animal breeders and dealers across the country and on the internet, so anyone who wants to keep a monkey as a pet can easily buy one.
Primates, like other wild animals in the exotic pet trade, endure great suffering. It is typical for captive infant monkeys to be forcibly removed from their mothers within just hours or days of birth—a practice that is inhumane and traumatic for both the mothers and the babies. We videotaped one such separation during our undercover investigation of Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia. It showed a terrified baby capuchin desperately clinging to the back of her fiercely protective mother who flew around the cage trying to dodge a keeper chasing after her with a net.
Pet owners, in a futile attempt to make the animals less dangerous, often mutilate the animals by removing their teeth—a painful procedure that may result in chronic health problems and does not prevent the animals from inflicting harm. Over time, weary of their pet monkeys’ attacks on people and destruction to the home, owners relegate the animals to lives of isolation, loneliness, frustration and neglect. Authorities in Kentucky found a 24-year-old baboon, who had been purchased as an infant, kept in a cage in a dark corner of a family's garage, suffering with serious health issues, including diabetes, sores and bad teeth. This is no way to treat animals who are known for their intelligence and for being extremely social; in the wild, primates live in pairs or family groups.
Hand-reared primates also almost always develop dysfunctional and neurotic behaviors such as rocking, spinning, body clasping, self-biting, over-grooming and hair plucking that results in bald patches.
We applaud the Natural Resources Committee for giving priority to this commonsense and urgently needed legislation, and we are grateful to the voices that spoke out in support of the bill. Please contact your U.S. Representative and urge him/her to support the Captive Primate Safety Act, H.R. 1776. No one needs to keep a pet monkey in their home or in their backyard, and no one should be allowed to do so at such great cost to the animals’ welfare and to public safety.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.