Post by: Bailey Cheney
This is probably the most common question that I get as a primate keeper. It often comes up while I’m giving a keeper chat, or while I’m feeding a particularly cute Coquerel’s Sifaka. Despite all the times I hear this question, I never get tired of answering it. This is because the answer is so important to primates and their conservation in the wild. At the zoo, we like to say that conservation starts with education. If I brushed off the question with a callous answer, I would be missing the opportunity to share and educate our guests about how amazing our primates are and how they should remain with their own kind.
So, the short answer to that question would be no, monkeys do not make good pets. However, it is a complicated “no” and requires elaboration. I was recently given the opportunity to travel to Wildtracks in Belize, a wildlife rehabilitation and release center dedicating to ending the illegal pet trade. It is home to more than 50 monkeys (Yucatan black howler monkeys, Geoffroy’s spider monkeys, and one white-faced capuchin) all of whom were confiscated as illegal pets by the government. All of these monkeys came to the center in conditions that ranged from bad to worse. Most were malnourished, many were sick, and there was even a spider monkey with five gunshot wounds from a poacher who killed her mother.
Wildtracks is fighting to give these monkeys a new life and a new home. They provide veterinary care to the individuals who need it, and are dedicated to giving them the skill sets needed to survive in the wild. They have a very effective methodology for rehabilitating monkeys. A few days before I arrived, Wildtracks got a call about an infant howler monkey who had just been confiscated by the local government. During my tour, Paul, the Director, allowed me into the quarantine room to see her. Before monkeys are placed with any other monkeys, they are kept in quarantine for at least 30 days so as not to spread any illnesses or parasites. They may stay longer than that if their medical conditions are severe. “Cho”, the infant howler, was considered to be a rather severe case.
She was a sickly and tiny thing. Physically, she had extremely bad scabies, was malnourished and emaciated. What broke my heart, however, was her mental state. She was obviously frightened and emotionally shut down. She would pull away from any type of contact and she was nervous when people were nearby. It took quite a bit of convincing for her to eat her food. Paul assigned a volunteer to be with Cho and get her used to a kind human presence so that she would accept medications and desperately needed milk formula. This was the first part of her rehabilitation process.
Like Cho, most monkeys that come into Wildtracks have received grossly neglectful care. Monkeys, although they do funny “human-like” behaviors, are not people. Unfortunately, usually the owners of the illegal pets are completely oblivious as to how to properly care for them and they feed them like you would a human infant. In some cases, they fail to provide even that kind of care. Monkeys have extremely specialized diet requirements that need evaluation according to what stage in life they are in, what their natural habitat is, and what type of produce is in season. Wildtracks takes all this into account and offers the infants and adults proper, fresh produce along with milk formula specifically suited to their nutritional needs.
After newly acquired monkeys are released from quarantine, a suitable group is found for them to live with. Because the goal of all Wildtracks animals is their eventual release back into the wild, they have to learn how to live in a group of their own kind. Primates are highly social creatures and require others of their own species to survive. This is another reason why monkeys make extremely bad pets. More often than not, they are kept as solitary pets and develop behavioral issues that are not normal for them and can often put them in danger. These developmental issues, along with isolation, can cause debilitating depression that can drastically affect their quality of life.
After the howler monkeys are placed with a group, they are assigned a caretaker. This caretaker acts as a slightly more hands-off maternal figure. They take them to the outside play-pens where the infants can learn social and survival skills. They also feed them, clean them, and break up any type of squabbles that get out of hand. After the infants get a little bit older, they are moved outside permanently and are weaned off of their maternal figure and human contact. The monkeys take this time to further solidify as a cohesive group. Eventually, they are put in pre-release, open-aired enclosures of around 1-3 acres. This teaches them how to stay in contact with each other over long distances, how to navigate wild vegetation, and how to move together as a group. When they are deemed ready physically and mentally, the howlers are taken to Fireburn, a federally protected preserve that is a natural habitat to howler monkeys. After their release, they are monitored and are still offered supplemental food sources. As time progresses, the howlers are slowly weaned off of those supplemental sources and become fully wild.
Generally, people who illegally own howlers only have them a few months or a year or two, because they begin to bite their owners and are then given away or rescued. As you can see, the rehabilitation process takes years. It requires a significantly long time to rectify the damage that only a few months of improper care can do to an infant or adult primate. This is why I always tell people that primates make bad pets. People can have the best intentions, but ignorance of their social and physiological requirements that primates desperately need always causes irreparable damage.
Recently, Wildtracks did a study to watch movement patterns of released groups of howlers in Fireburn. Results showed that they were thriving. They were able to find all of the monkeys that had been released, and, even found that wild howler monkeys were moving into the area. Best of all, a total of four Yucatan Black Howlers had been born to previously rehabilitated monkeys.
Personally, I’d rather see a howler monkey group happily living in a forest, than alone in someone’s home. I’d rather see them moving up in the trees, interacting with their family, and doing what happy, wild monkeys do in the wild: surviving and thriving in their natural habitat. No matter how cute they are, remember that primates do not make good pets. If you really want the best for them, admire them at a distance and let them be monkeys. Appreciate them for what they are: beautiful, incredible, intelligent, social, wild creatures.