Do Monkeys Make Good Pets?

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.

FeedingSo, 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.Kitchen

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.  Pre-Release2

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. Pre-Release

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.


House Calls for Monkeys and Apes – Doctors in the Zoo

sifaka weeksDid you know primates have to see doctors? Those doctors happen to be veterinarians, but it’s true! Primates are very similar to humans, and we can get a lot of the same sicknesses. Something that doesn’t seem so bad for humans, like the common cold, can be devastating to a primate if it turns into pneumonia. This is one of the many reasons why primates make bad pets; it is simply too dangerous for the primates’ health.

Our primate keepers here at the Houston Zoo have to be cleared of certain illnesses (like tuberculosis) before they can even work with our prosimians, monkeys and apes. To help protect against the spread of these diseases, keepers wear gloves and face masks when cleaning up after their animals. And if one of our keepers is sick they have to stay home, or, if just a minor problem, wear gloves and masks all day.

So let’s say that one of our primates gets sick. Here at the Zoo we have all kinds of ways to try and help them out. If a primate has a runny nose and a cough for more than a couple of days, the vets may prescribe cold medicine or antihistamines to help clear that up. Other injuries may require pain medicine. Prevention is important too, so all of our primates receive regular treatments on a monthly basis, similar to your pets at home.

Ever wonder why we ask guests not to throw snacks at our animals? Controlling calories is one reason. Another is that many species are very sensitive to unfamiliar food which could trigger severe gastric upset. We specially design the diets of all of our animals. And lastly, as was mentioned above, primates can become very sick from germs transferred from a guest via food thrown at them.

Chronic illnesses can occur in primates as it can in humans. Diabetes is one of these chronic illnesses that can impact a non-human primate’s quality of life. To help with this disease, our vets will evaluate the animal’s diet to reduce foods with too much sugar, which in turn will lower the animal’s blood sugar, and prevent or reverse weight gain. That, along with medications to help keep the illness in check, will help them live a long and healthy life. And, acute illnesses like a bladder or kidney infection are treated with appropriate antibiotics and intensive care, when necessary.

Here at the Houston Zoo we strive to make all of our animal’s lives long and happy ones. Sometimes it is harder than others with animals that don’t want to take their medication, or eat what is best for them. But that is just part of the amazing challenge that we face to give our primates all that they deserve. The vet team and animal care teams work together to ensure the best care for all of the animals in the zoo, and it is a daunting task, but one we all embrace wholeheartedly!

Painting: Animal Artwork

Written by Tammy Buhrmester

Naku painting blog finalSome scientists have heralded the capacity for art as a key feature that separates humans from other species, but the wide variety of animals at the Houston Zoo do not share the same opinion. They may be different by having paws, hooves, hands, scales, trunks, and flippers, but they still create amazing artwork. Their process is different from that of human artists, but they do it for the same reasons. Their motivations are to be creative and for rewards (theirs being food or other positive reinforcement.)

Who paints?
At the Houston Zoo, paintings have been produced by primates, elephants, birds, sea lions, raccoons, cats, spectacled bears, giraffes, tapirs and many more.

Why do they paint?
There are many reasons why we allow the primates to paint. The main reason that we paint with the primates is for enrichment. Enrichment is encouraging animal’s natural responses by stimulating natural instincts and behavior. Painting allows the animals to be creative, express their feelings and emotions, and it may be a form of stress relief. The painting process allows them to have all their senses involved: they can see the painting, touch the paint, smell the paint, hear the brush strokes or finger strokes against the canvas, and taste the paint. (Of course, we use non-toxic paint so that they are not harmed if they eat some of it.)

Sometimes our primates just like decorating their own space!
Sometimes our primates just like decorating their own space!

How do they paint?
The primates at the Houston Zoo have always shown a great deal of creativity, as is typical of intelligent beings. They are allowed to use many forms of painting tools:  their hands, lips, foam brushes, cardboard tubes, special man-made 3 foot paintbrushes, assorted browse and whatever medium they decide to add to their process (water, dirt, hay, and grass.)

Painting is done through training, but animals paint only when they are willing to participate. Keepers usually apply paint to the canvas in small dots first. To start the training we initially bridged (a cue to tell them that they did exactly what you want them to do) and then rewarded the animal for touching their hand, finger or brush to the paint on the canvas. All animals receive a small reward for touching the paint on the canvas. Rewards consist of small pieces of their diet (figs, currants, grapes, worms, juice, or yogurt, depending on the animal.) The painting activity itself is so self-rewarding that most of them forget to stop to get their reward until the painting is finished.

What do they paint?
Canvas is not the only thing that the primates paint on to make art. They also paint on ostrich eggs, glass Christmas ornaments, fabric bags, photo frames, clothing, rocks, wine glasses and much more.

What happens to the paintings?
The primates produce beautiful paintings and we use them to raise funds for the conservation of their species in the wild. The primate department raises money through the sale of the paintings to help chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, gibbons, black howler monkeys, turtles, elephants, binturongs, babirusa and clouded leopard species.

cheyenne painting


Next time you are walking through the Wortham World of Primates, or the Great Ape Gallery in the African Forest and see some bright pink, blue, green, or yellow on the primates or on the walls, you know that they have been expressing themselves through art!

Growing up Guenon

This post written by Sara Riger

DeBrazza less wire more brightness
If you have been through Wortham World of Primates at the Houston Zoo then you have been fortunate enough to see the De Brazza’s Monkey family that calls one of the African exhibits home. You may have to stand at the exhibit and be patient but you will surely see the bamboo begin to move and one or more of four family members come into view. The biggest of all is Albert. He is the father and very territorial so he may stand his ground, stare you down, and even bob his head at you. That is his job. He is protecting his territory and his family. You may see Amelia, the female, who looks just like Albert but is smaller in size. She is the mother of the two smaller monkeys in the exhibit. Her firstborn is named Ruby. Ruby will be two years old on December 31st, 2015. She is a miniature version of her mother, having her full colors. She prefers to hang around with dad like she is a big deal. The newest member of this foursome is Flint and he was born on November 1st, 2014 and was a welcome addition to the family. I would love to tell you about this very special young monkey and his unique family in hopes that you grow to admire and appreciate him as much as the keepers that are lucky enough to care for him do.

After Flint’s birth, keepers noticed he looked larger than Ruby did when she first arrived. Newborns are golden in color and it has been such a delight to see him start growing his characteristic, but still small, white beard, reddish brown eyebrow ridge, and eventual very distinct colorations that makes De Brazzas’s so striking. He has started to show the red on his little bottom and some black on the end of his tail which will be all black as he matures. Infant De Brazza’s cling very tightly to mom after their birth so it did take some time to determine if this was a boy or a girl. The staff then voted and it was decided to name the newest primate that was all arms and legs, Flint. By the fourth day, Amelia allowed her daughter to touch the new arrival and by the next day Ruby was grooming her baby brother. Flint was nursing exclusively in the beginning, but by day twelve he was first observed climbing off of mom and tasting some red cabbage. As the days continued he became more adept at climbing the mesh and maneuvering on the ropes. It helps to have an older sister to set an example. Amelia may have also been more at ease the second time around. There may be other mothers out there that can relate to that. He continued to test food items while still relying on milk from mom and also drinking water.

Oh Wow SM

De Brazza’s are foraging monkeys which means they look for food throughout the day. Here at the zoo, keepers provide all the primates with several feedings. Around lunch time we provide them one vegetable item from their daily allotment of diet. Flint is comfortable coming over to the keepers to take his share. De Brazza’s are a type of guenon so they have cheek pouches to store food and Mr. Flint looks quite amusing with his puffed out cheeks.


This young monkey keeps developing physically and mentally. On March 22nd, 2015, Flint got on the scale in the night house all by himself and staff were able to get a weight on him. In previous months he would stay on mom during this process so they would be weighed together. He is a whopping 2.4 pounds. He now shifts in and out of the night house by himself, oftentimes taking off in front of his mother and sister, a very brave little man. He has formed his own personality, is spending time with all members of his family including Albert, who is very tolerant of his children. It is so much fun to see Flint and Ruby hanging upside down, wrestling, eating side by side, and jumping from tree to tree as they play together. I sincerely hope the next time you visit the Houston Zoo you make it a point to come to the De Brazza’s exhibit. You will be rewarded with some major cuteness and will find it difficult to wipe the smile off your face as you continue your walk through the wonderful green place in the middle of this huge city that we, and the monkeys, call home.

What is Browse and Why Do Our Primates Like It?

will blog browse canWhat is browse? Is it looking at a magazine while you’re at the doctor’s office? Or trying to find something on the internet? Well, no, when we talk about browse in the zoo we’re talking about plants and vegetation.  The definition of browse at the zoo is: fresh plants that are given to an animal for food and enrichment as a replacement for some of their wild food sources.

There is a wide range of browse that we can use here in Houston. Due to our semi-tropical climate we are able to grow all kinds of browse. Even some that may grow amongst our animal’s natural homes in Africa, Asia, or South America!

There are some great advantages and a few disadvantages in giving primates browse. But with proper inspection, and dedicated keepers to make sure their animals are safe, the disadvantages basically disappear. Browse is used mainly to promote behavioral enrichment. This just means that the animal is exhibiting behavior that they would in the wild. It can also add to the animals’ nutrition, providing fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. Sometimes you may even see some of our young primates just playing with leftover browse that mom and dad have left behind.

will blog orangutan browse


Some disadvantages may be potential toxins that are in the plant. This is where zookeepers and horticulturists work hand in hand. Our horticulture staff will bring zookeepers browse that they know is non-toxic. They know what part of the plants the animals can and cannot have. Some of our browse has to be cut a certain way to make sure the animals don’t get part of the plants that they shouldn’t. It is very important not to feed animals’ random plants because unless you are an expert like out horticulture staff, as it may be deadly for our animals.  Zookeepers always check with them before we feed it to our animals.

There are thousands upon thousands of plants out there in this world. Some are edible and some are not. Some are sweet and some are bitter. Our animals all have their favorite types of browse, and of course least favorite. For instance, our gorillas love to eat willow branches. Our mandrills do not like to eat ginger, but occasionally one will tear into it. Our sifaka love to eat rose petals.

Sifaka and rose petals
Sifaka and rose petals

Overall, browse is an important part of an animal’s life at the zoo. It has so many uses, and there are so many types for our animals to choose from. None of this would go as smoothly as it does if it weren’t for the horticulture team here. So, whenever you see one of them out and about planting more browse for our animals, give them a big thank you!

Penny the cat discovers Gorillas

Hello all. Penny the Swap Shop cat here. There is something new going on at the zoo.

I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I kept hearing about these new animals at the

Penny contemplating gorillas
Penny contemplating gorillas

zoo…..gorillas. So, I did some research.

It seems the Houston Zoo has added 7 new gorillas. A bachelor group and a family group. I didn’t think they would be so impressive until I saw pictures of them.   They are actually amazing!

There are three males in the bachelor group – Ajari (14 yrs. old), Chaka (30 yrs. old) and Mike (23 yrs. old). The family group consists of one male, Zuri (31 yrs. old), with Holli (25 yrs. old), Sufi (13 yrs. old) and Benti (40 yrs. old).   Their exhibit is beautiful and took a long time

The gorilla family in their new exhibit

to build.   They have a much bigger house than I have in the Swap Shop.   But then, they are a lot bigger than me so I suppose that is fair – even if they aren’t cats.  I guess that also explains why they get to be outside without a leash when I don’t.

I learned that gorillas are disappearing in the wild. It is due to habitat loss and illegal hunting. That made me pretty sad. But, the Houston Zoo is working with organizations in the field to help save the gorillas. They work with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) and the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE) to help the wild gorillas. Every time you come to the zoo to see our gorillas, you are helping wild gorillas.

Come and see me at the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.  I will be here carefully contemplating gorillas.

Don’t know about the Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

Eat Pizza. Save Gorillas!

We have another fun (and tasty) way for you to help save gorillas!papa-johns-pizza-1

This Thursday, May 21, order Papa John’s online, use promo code GORILLA, and $1 of your purchase will be donated to the Houston Zoo’s gorilla conservation program. This offer is valid only on May 21. Order online at, and don’t forget to use the promo code GORILLA.

And be sure to visit the gorillas at the Zoo this summer! The new habitat opens this Friday, May 22, and you can experience what makes these animals so wonderful. Up close and incredible.Gorillas Explore Their Habitat

Want to learn how the Houston Zoo helps gorillas in the wild, and how you can, too? Visit

And remember, every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help save animals in the wild!

Happy Birthday Willie!!!

The Houston Zoo is wishing chimpanzee Willie a very Happy Birthday! Over the past five years, since the opening of the chimpanzee exhibit in 2010, we have watched as Willie has grown from a playful juvenile chimpanzee to a mature adult chimpanzee. During this past year, he has risen in rank to become the dominant male in the group.

10 - year old Willie the Boss
10 – year old Willie the ‘Boss’

When Willie first came to the Houston Zoo, he was the smallest member of the group and at six years old still spent the majority of his time with Lulu and Lucy, the mothers of the group. He continued to rely on them for protection during group conflicts and his primary goal in life and in interactions with the group was to just have fun and play. He played an important part in getting the original chimpanzee group comfortable living together in their new home as his solution to any tension or nervousness was to encourage everyone to play!

Willie (2)
6 – year old Willie the ‘Kid’

In the wild, chimpanzees spend the first seven years of their lives with their mothers. These juvenile chimpanzees are characterized by tan faces and a white tuft of hair above their rear ends. Between the ages of 6-9, adolescent chimpanzees will start interacting more socially with other members of the group. They lose their white tuft of hair and their faces start to change from a light tan color to black. During this time, males will spend less and less time with their family and more time interacting with adult males in the group. It is during this time that young males start participating in boundary patrols and begin to try to figure out their place in the male hierarchy. These young ‘teenage’ chimpanzees often find themselves involved more in conflicts as they try pushing boundaries and establishing themselves in the hierarchy.

At eight years old, Willie started spending less time with Lucy and Lulu and more time with Mac, the dominant male at the time. Keepers called him “Mac’s Shadow” as he would never be very far from Mac’s side. He always seemed to be looking to Mac for guidance on how to behave. During this time, Willie also started challenging the females and lower ranking males. Anytime a conflict occurred, you could find Willie right in the middle of it. His favorite tactic was to throw dirt and then run away before anyone could catch him. The only chimpanzee that could discipline ‘teenage’ Willie successfully was Mac. Willie gained rank quickly.

Willie 1
8 – year old Willie the ‘Teenager’

Over the last two years, the original chimpanzee group has been integrated with a new chimpanzee group of six chimpanzees. Willie initially was very friendly but shy about meeting his new friends. His initial interactions with the new chimpanzees were submissive and friendly. Due to his friendly initial interactions and his playful nature, Willie quickly made friends with the new chimpanzees. As the groups were combined and Willie became more confident in the new group, keepers started noticing him intervening in conflicts instead of causing them. Keepers also noticed that many of the chimpanzees started to look to Willie for reassurance and support during conflicts. One of a dominant male chimpanzee’s main roles is to manage conflict within the group. Willie seemed to be fulfilling this role in the new group.

Willie can often be found at the center of grooming and play sessions within the newly combined chimpanzee group. Besides being strong enough to maintain order, another important trait for a high ranking chimpanzee is the ability to gain and maintain allies. Bullies usually don’t last long as dominant males as the other chimpanzees in a group often band together and overthrow them. Willie’s friendly nature has gained him lots of allies. Even though he is now in charge, his favorite strategy to maintaining order is to encourage everyone to play. The one thing that has not changed about Willie in the past five years is that his primary goal in life is to just have fun and play!
Chimpanzees in zoos can live into their sixties. We look forward to celebrating many more birthdays with Willie and watching him as he continues to learn and grow into an impressive adult male chimpanzee!

What is Coltan? What is Tantalum? How You Can Help!

Written by Joshua Cano

willie chimpDid you know that you can help tens of thousands of animals in the wild with one simple action? In today’s world almost everyone has some type of electronic device. You are most likely reading this blog on your personal computer, tablet or cell phone. These and most other electronic devices share one thing in common, an element called tantalum. Tantalum is used in your microprocessors, cameras, and circuit boards. This important component is mined throughout the world, but it is destroying national parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Materials used to manufacture cell phones are taken from places where animals like chimpanzees and gorillas live.
Materials used to manufacture cell phones are taken from places where animals like chimpanzees and gorillas live.

Tantalum is often mistaken for coltan, which stands for the 2 ores, columbite and tantalite, which are found together. When refined, the ore tantalite becomes metallic tantalum. These ores are being illegally mined from land’s that belong to the DRC’s national parks. Large chunks of lush forests are cleared away in order to mine for tantalum. With the increase in the bush meat market, due to the increase of the human population in the area, many animal populations have dropped by as much as 50% in those areas.


So, how can you help save these beautiful animals? What is the simple action you can take? The tantalum in your electronics can be reused, thus reducing the need to mine for more. Last year, the United States was able to supplement 30% of its tantalum needs from recycled electronics.  7000+ Houstonians helped supplement that 30% by bringing in their old electronics to the Houston Zoo to be properly recycled. Next time you are at the Houston Zoo look for our electronics deposit boxes located at both entrances.

Will you be part of that 7000+ people?

The Life and Times of Opie the Goeldi’s Monkey

Written by Amy Berting & Nathan Fox

Opie and Peach pose for a picture!

Once upon a time at the Houston Zoo, there was a boy Goeldi’s monkey named Andy, and he met this beautiful girl Goeldi’s monkey named Peach. They quickly became inseparable, and through hard times and good times they were the ideal couple. They had so many adventures at the zoo and met so many other primates, but decided it was finally time to settle down. Their love brought them the greatest joy of their lives, their son Opie.

Goeldi’s monkeys (Callimico goeldii) are small primates found in the forests of northern South America. They live in small family groups, mostly consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring. After a gestation period of approximately 5 months, the female will give birth to a single offspring. Our breeding pair, Peach and Andy, arrived here at the zoo in April of 2012. After 2 unsuccessful pregnancies, Peach finally gave birth to a healthy male named Opie on November 10, 2014! Due to Peach being a first time mother, keepers kept a close eye on the new family to make sure that Opie was nursing and clinging well to Peach’s back. An infant Goeldi’s will typically ride on its mother’s back for one month, and  after that, the father will take turns carrying the baby. Andy was first seen showing interest in Opie when he was about 6 days old. Keepers saw Andy grooming Peach and then grooming Opie’s face.


When Opie was one month old, keepers saw him get off Peach’s back for the first time and then a few days later, Opie was seen riding on Andy’s back for the first time. These days, Opie is very independent and only occasionally clings to his parents. He can typically be seen running around and exploring the exhibit on his own. During feeding times, he likes to run over to his parents and steal food out of their hands. However, they normally don’t mind sharing. As with most monkeys, Opie’s favorite foods include bananas, grapes, figs, and currants.  He has also started coming up to his zookeepers for treats, handed over carefully through the mesh. He is even mastering the vocalizations his parents have taught him and can be heard all over the Wortham World of Primates.

Opie is a wonderful addition to the primate family of the Houston Zoo and he continues to grow and discover his world.  Every day is new with  obstacles that he crashes through bravely. He brings joy to keepers and guests alike …. and they all continue to live happily ever after.

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