Captive Primate Safety Act

Photo by Kenzaza

What the Bill Does

Nonhuman primates (including apes, monkeys, lemurs, and lorises) are highly intelligent and typically social wild animals whose needs are irreconcilable with the realities of a captive life as pets. They can also pose a serious threat to the people around them. It is time to put an end to the inhumane and dangerous pet primate trade.

The Captive Primate Safety Act would amend the Lacey Act Amendments of 1981 to prohibit any interstate or foreign commerce involving nonhuman primates for the exotic pet trade, including sale, transportation, and acquisition. It is narrowly crafted to target the commerce in and private possession of primates, and would not impact zoos and other exhibitors, universities, labs, or sanctuaries.

The Pet Primate Trade

It is illegal to import primates into the United States for the pet trade, but licensed and unlicensed breeders within the United States provide a continuous supply of baby primates to meet the insatiable demand. The internet is rife with advertisements for primates, and these dealers ship them to buyers around the country. Often for less than the cost of a purebred dog, a person can buy virtually any species of monkey or ape, but buyers rarely understand the truth about owning a primate. The total number of primates kept as pets is unknown, but most estimates suggest there are tens of thousands.

Animal Welfare

Monkeys and apes suffer enormously when kept as pets. They are often forcibly removed from their mothers soon after birth, spend their lives confined in small cages, and endure unnecessary, painful procedures such as tooth extraction to make them less dangerous. Unlike in the wild, where most live in large social groups, almost primates kept as pets are held in relative isolation, devoid of social contact with others of their species, and in conditions detrimental to their health and well-being. Many exhibit stereotypical behaviors as a result of the deprived life they endure.

While endearing at a young age, primates quickly mature and exhibit natural, wild behaviors that are incompatible with life inside a human household. Attempts to mold them to fit the owner’s expectations—including expectations that they act like “little humans”—almost always end in pain and suffering for the primate.

Even the most well-meaning of owners cannot provide the special care, housing, diet, socialization, and maintenance that primates require. While a very few of these animals are fortunate enough to be placed in sanctuaries after an overwhelmed owner voluntarily or involuntarily relinquishes ownership, the majority of pet primates live a shortened, deprived, and unhappy existence.

Public Safety

Since 1990, approximately 300 people have reported being injured by primates kept by individuals, although many more incidents likely go unreported. A particularly horrific 2009 case gained worldwide attention, when a Connecticut woman was blinded and lost most of her face and hands after being attacked by her neighbor’s pet chimpanzee.

Often purchased as cute infants, primates tend to exhibit unpredictable behavior after the age of two. As they reach sexual maturity, they become larger and more aggressive, and will bite out of fear, to defend themselves and to establish dominance. Even the smallest primates pose a serious safety risk.

Additionally, nonhuman primates pose distinct risks to public health since they can easily transmit a wide range of viral, bacterial, parasitic, and fungal diseases to humans, including yellow fever, monkey pox, Marburg virus disease, viral hepatitis, measles, herpes simian B virus, and simian immunodeficiency virus.

Community Resources

Private ownership of primates not only threatens public safety, but can also strain the resources of the community and of rescue organizations. Local police departments and other first responders are not trained or equipped to deal with wild animals, but when a dangerous primate escapes from someone’s home, they are the ones forced to make difficult decisions about how to handle these unpredictable situations.

One high-profile instance occurred in Zanesville, Ohio, when a man released 56 exotic animals from his private farm, including big cats and primates. The local sheriff’s department had no choice but to kill most of the animals due to their proximity to people. Of the three primates released, one baboon was killed and the other two were trapped. The incident cost the department $8,000 in overtime and was deeply traumatic for the officers and the local citizens in addition to what the animals endured.

Sanctuaries must also deal with the consequences of primate ownership, because they become the dumping grounds for unwanted animals. With limited resources, sanctuaries are strained further by each new animal who has nowhere else to go. While sanctuaries serve a vital role, they cannot be a comprehensive solution to the growing crisis of pet primate ownership.

Global Conservation

The breeding of and trade in pet primates may contribute to the illegal international wildlife trade. Demand for live primates or their parts in the United States may increase the capture and sale of those species abroad, many of which are threatened or endangered in the wild. There is no way to know how many US-born primates are disposed of by private owners, or when their parts are illegally sold into black market trade in bush meat and for other purposes.

Legal Status

Federal: Aside from the ban on importing primates for the pet trade, there are no federal laws governing the sale or keeping of primates as pets. Primates used in research or held by dealers and exhibitors are provided protection under the Animal Welfare Act, but this does not extend to those in private homes.

State: State laws regarding private possession of primates form an inconsistent patchwork across the country. Laws vary from a complete ban on pet primates, to a ban on specific species, to requiring a permit, to no restrictions at all. Even states that have enacted bans typically allow people to keep primates who were in their possession before the bans took effect. With lifespans that can exceed 30 years, it is likely that many remain as pets in those states, with no hope of rescue.

Local: Within states that do not have bans or licensure requirements, some city and county ordinances have been enacted to require licenses or to prohibit the keeping of primates as pets.

Case Study: Summer

As a baby macaque, Summer was playful and cuddly and looked around with soulful eyes. Summer was born at a private breeder’s facility and forcibly removed from her mother when she was just a few days old. Despite her fragile state and young age, she was then put into a tiny crate and shipped thousands of miles to the person who bought her. Summer was kept in a diaper, and as she grew, she increasingly fought this. When she started biting, her owner had all of her teeth removed. From then on, her tongue would not stay in her mouth and she had to eat a diet of mushy, processed food. Her owner finally just kept a diaper on her with duct tape, often not changing it for days. The resulting diaper rash permanently damaged the skin around her abdomen and genitals. Summer was rarely let out of her small cage. She spent hours alone, rocking neurotically under a blanket. Her leg muscles atrophied from lack of use. When she was let out, she was kept on a leash, attached to a collar around her abdomen. The collar was too tight and never taken off, eventually embedding into her skin and requiring veterinary assistance to remove. If she tried to climb on anything, she would be pulled down and yelled at, causing her to regurgitate her food in fear. This was Summer’s life for 17 years, until she was finally released to a sanctuary, where she was able to heal and enjoy her remaining years.