A Change Of Pace

Yesterday, the House passed the Captive Primate Safety Act, which would make it illegal to “import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce” any nonhuman primate. (Humans are covered by the 13th Amendment.) This is one of those small-bore but really, really good bills that I’ve been rooting for for years. I wrote about it back in 2005; since I rather like my original post, here’s a compressed and updated version, rather than a whole new one.

Owning primates as pets is a bad idea. Unlike dogs and cats, who have had thousands of years to adapt to us, nonhuman primates have the psyches they need to survive in a jungle or on a savannah, not in a human home. Most people buy them when they are cute little babies. At this point, like infants of most (mammalian) species, they are tractable and submissive. However, this (predictably) doesn’t last. When they hit puberty, many of them become aggressive, and try to start dominance fights with members of what they think of as their pack (i.e., your household.) Sometimes they start with the pack’s weakest members (i.e., your children.) Since most apes and monkeys are very strong, and have vicious bites, this is not pleasant.

Moreover, they are agile, athletic, clever, inquisitive, and have opposable thumbs. As someone who has owned cats and dogs, I have often been very grateful that they had neither the intelligence nor the opposable thumbs required to do things like open cupboards and turn doorknobs. Monkeys do. And they love to tear things apart for fun — the contents of your pantry, your tax files, your clothes, the curtains, whatever. From the owner of a Capuchin monkey — small as primates go:

“He can unlock windows and would open them all of the time, which is fine with the bars but not fine for my electric bill. So I rigged them shut. Well, he figured that out and broke the windows completely. So I had to get a screened-in patio that cost me 11 grand so that the mosquitoes would not infest his room and my house. The electric bill stays at a ridiculous rate.

He managed to pick at the walls enough until he could get his hands into it and then eventually tore giant holes around his room. He pulled out all of the insulation and the wiring. I had to contain him for a week while construction workers came in to rebuild the walls with a cement board, which, fortunately, he hasn’t been able to destroy yet.”

More fun: when you’re up in the trees, you don’t need to care where you pee, so most nonhuman primates don’t. You can put diapers on them, but they can take them off again. Consider the implications for a monkey-owner’s carpeting, furniture, etc. Consider the fact that almost every animal gets diarrhea sometimes. Yuck.

Third, they are not very trainable. Lots of people confuse intelligence with tractability, but the two are very different. Apes and monkeys are smart, but not tractable, except when they are young. Most of the chimps you see on TV are (in chimp terms) young children; by the time they get anywhere near adolescence, they are generally unusable as performers, since (understandably) they are more concerned with things like establishing dominance over other primates than with pleasing us.

For these reasons, nonhuman primates make really, really bad pets. They are destructive and at times vicious, and, as I said, they bite hard. As a result, most people who own them end up keeping them in cages. This is really dreadful for very intelligent, very social, emotionally complicated animals. And it’s even worse when you consider that nonhuman primates tend to live from fifteen to thirty years; chimps in captivity live until around sixty. That’s a very long time to be in prison.

Besides that, they are also a public health hazard. As I said earlier, primates bite:

“It is not reasonable to expect that you will never be bitten by any monkey. The relatively docile youngster eventually turns from play-aggression to the serious aggression of an adult. Proper management techniques go a long ways in coping. The larger the monkey, generally speaking, the bigger the problem. Yet it is hard to prepare someone for the onslaught of mature aggression in a monkey. Have you ever seen a rabid dog in the throes of an attack–the pursuit of an angry bull in a bull ring, the vicious ripping power of a lion’s canine teeth? A mature monkey, even one who was hand-raised, can attack a friend or stranger with equal vengeance. An angry monkey has the cunning and dexterity to leap into the air and accurately take a swipe an the human eye, or to bite the human body in the most vulnerable places, the jugular vein, the veins of the wrists, the nerve-filled fingers of the hand. It almost takes the discipline of a professional trainer to deal with the personalities of some individual monkeys in a constructive way as they mature.”

This is a danger to members of one’s household, and to anyone a primate encounters if he or she escapes, since biting is one of their normal reactions to stress. (And they are very good at escaping. Here’s a partial list of incidents involving escaped primates. And here’s an article on someone who was attacked by chimps a few years back, with a picture of what remains of his face over sixty surgeries later.)

Besides the bites themselves, monkeys and apes also carry diseases. Since they are a lot more like us than cats or dogs are, they are susceptible to many more human diseases, and we are susceptible to more of theirs. Here is an article on all the diseases one can get from nonhuman primates, including ebola, Marburg, monkeypox, viral hepatitis and all sorts of delightful things. One that’s particularly worth noting is Herpes B, which is widespread in many species of macaques. They tend to be asymptomatic, but when humans get Herpes B, they usually die. (And ask yourself this: how would a human doctor even know to look for a disease normally found only in macaques?)

So, to summarize: owning nonhuman primates as pets is bad for the owner, really bad for the primate, and bad for public health. Bad, bad, bad. And what do you do with your pet primate once you’ve decided you don’t want to care for him or her any more? If you’re lucky, you can find a sanctuary that takes them in, but there are very few of these, and they are generally full. You certainly can’t reintroduce them into the wild after bringing them up as a sort of peculiar and hairy human child and expect good results. Most often, people either keep them in cages for the duration, abandon them, or euthanize them. All told, it’s a sad, sad story.

Which is why the fact that the House passed this bill is a very, very good thing. The Humane Society reports that Sens. Boxer and Vitter plan to introduce it in the Senate soon. Write to your Senators and ask them to support it.


Postscript: Does anyone have any idea why Democrats voted for this bill 247-2, while Republicans voted against it 76-93? I didn’t realize that this was a partisan issue.

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