When we think about people keeping wild animals as pets, we usually think back to a weird daytime TV programme about the American family living with a tiger in their back yard. We rarely think of wild animals being kept as pets in the UK, but sadly this isn’t the case.
Wild Futures, a charity focusing on the rescue and rehabilitation of primates from the pet trade, reports there are currently around 5000 primates being kept as pets in the UK. Primates aren’t just chimps, they’re an order of mammals which is made up of two suborders; Strepsirrhini (lemurs, galagos and lorisids) and Haplorhini (tarsiers, monkeys and apes), and are characterised by their partially or fully arboreal life style and their comparatively large brains in relation to other mammals. They show high levels of intelligence, and form some of the most complex social bonds seen in the animal kingdom, a supporting piece of evidence in the social-brain hypothesis which suggests human intelligence evolved as a way of living in large social groups (Dunbar, 1998). However, when primates are kept as pets, these factors are often overlooked leading to high welfare risks and extreme suffering.
Unlike dogs, horses, farm animals and even rabbits, monkeys have never been domesticated, i.e. artificially selected for human companionship/use. Through domestication, animals generally become tame, docile and dependent on human protection, relying on us to provide food and protect them from predators. They are also often very different from their ancient ancestors. Take dogs for example. Originating from wolves around 15,000 years ago (although this is still debated among researchers) the dogs of today come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have been bred to perform a variety of different tasks. Their breeding has been moderated to create an animal that would no longer be able to survive for very long in the wild (although in some areas, generations of stray dogs are turning back into hardy animals that can make do without human protection). Wild animals, including primates, who are kept as pets, have not gone through the process of domestication. Although those raised by humans may appear slightly tamer, they still retain a strong wild instinct and a natural wariness towards humans. Rather than seeking human companionship, they will more likely reject it, and can even become aggressive towards their owners.
What are some of the problems faced by pet primates in the UK? As relatively unusual pets, there is very little advice for potential owners, meaning the conditions faced by these animals can widely vary, and it is only specialised sanctuaries with trained staff who can even begin to properly care for them. There are no strict housing requirements for primates being kept privately in the UK, and as a result their housing situations can be highly unsuitable and confining, leading to abnormal behaviours and physical deformities. In the wild, primates use their increased intelligence to solve problems, find food, use tools and maintain social bonds. When kept in isolating, cramped and barren conditions, primates can suffer from depression and anxiety, leading to abnormal behaviours such as pacing, self-hugging, rocking and self-mutilation.
Another part of their highly social life styles is the bond between mother and infant. In the wild, some primates may stay with their family unit, which will include their own mother, for their whole life, assisting with raising their younger brothers and sisters and in turn looking towards their elders for guidance when raising their own young. However, when kept as pets, primates are often separated from their mothers too early, causing extreme stress and abnormal behaviour. Primates raised by humans instead of their own mothers are often unable to be released back into the wild, as they have not learnt the skills needed to survive or how to properly socialise with other primates.
These issues, coupled with the high levels of intelligence and the need for inter-species socialisation means pet primates can suffer from psychological and physiological illnesses. Wild Futures is a charity concerned with primate welfare and actively campaigns against the primate trade and private ownership. They also run a sanctuary based in Looe, Cornwall which provides a ‘home for life’ for those animals saved from pet ownership but unable to be retuned to the wild. The sanctuary now cares for over 30 primates, including Grips and Josh, two capuchin monkeys.
- Grips was rescued from private ownership after his mother passed away. As a pet, Grips was fed a lot of human foods with high-sugar content, leading to him developing type 2 diabetes. As a result of this, he now has to receive medicine as frequently as 4 times a day, and unfortunately this is a condition that will not go away. Thanks to the sanctuary, Grips is now being fed an appropriate diet and will receive the proper veterinary care he needs.
- After biting his owner, Josh was taken to a farm zoo where he was kept in isolation and fed an inappropriate diet which included sweets and icecream. As a result of the high levels of stress and boredom, Josh ended up chewing off the end of his own tail, a tragic but not unusual form of self-mutilation in captive primates. Josh was brought to the sanctuary after the closure of the farm zoo and now lives in a colony of other rescued capuchins.
The keeping of primates as pets is threatening the survival of many species, encouraging the trade of animals across the world, and the capture of individuals from the wild. In many cases of wild caught primates the mothers will be killed, sometimes harvested for bush meat, and the young will be separated from their species before they have gained any key socialisation or survival skills, again leading to psychological distress and making it hard to return them to the wild.
Charities such as the RSPC and Wild Futures are fighting for a ban on primates being kept as pets and traded in the UK. Through public campaigns, these organisations are raising awareness for the thousands of primates suffering in the UK as a result of the pet trade. Rehabilitation centres also offer a safe and enriching home for rescued primates who cannot be released, as well as educating the general public on the specialised welfare needs of these animal that cannot be met in a companion-animal situation.
- Please visit the Wild Futures website for more information and to learn how you can help fight primate ownership in the UK.
- If you’re interested in visiting the sanctuary or adopting one of the monkeys, click here. Money raised goes towards caring for the animals, improving the sanctuary and campaigning.
- Sign the RSPCA petition here to show your support for the fight against pet primates in the UK.
- Dunbar, R.I., 1998. The social brain hypothesis. brain, 9(10), pp.178-190.