The Perils of Keeping Monkeys as Pets (2024)

Thinking about acquiring a monkey to keep as an adorable pet? Think carefully. Thousands of nonhuman primates are hosted as companions in people's homes across the United States—relationships that often end in tears.

As babies these big-eyed, furry creatures may seem harmless. But once they reach sexual maturity, experts warn, monkeys can become aggressive. And some primates harbor deadly diseases, like herpes B, that they can pass on to human primates via bites and scratches.

Many people remain undaunted by the risks of adopting primates in their homes. Viewed as status symbols or substitute children, monkeys are commonly sold for thousands of dollars through newspaper ads and the Internet.

"We're looking for a baby monkey to love and spoil," writes one woman from Orlando, Florida, on an electronic bulletin board. "We are unable to have anymore children and have a void in our hearts. We need a baby to love!"

A quick Internet search reveals a thriving trade in just about every species of primate, from capuchins to chimpanzees. Prices range from U.S. $1,500 to $50,000. Even endangered species, like Diana monkeys, lemurs, and gibbons, are for sale.

The Allied Effort to Save Other Primates, an international coalition of individuals and organizations dedicated to protecting monkeys and apes, estimates there are 15,000 primates kept as pets in the United States.

No federal laws regulate private ownership, and only nine states ban individuals from owning nonhuman primates.

Health Concerns

Veterinarian Kevin Wright of the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona says primates are highly intelligent, emotionally complex, and long-lived animals that need to be around their own kind in order to develop normally.

"If you try to keep them as pets you're creating a mentally disturbed animal in 99.9 percent of the cases," said Wright, director of conservation, science and sanctuary at the zoo. "The animal will never be able to fit in any other home. Never learn how to get along with other monkeys. And, more often than not, will end up with a lot of behavioral traits that are self-destructive."

Zoonotic diseases are also a concern. Human cold sores, he said, can kill smaller monkeys like marmosets and tamarins. While macaques can carry herpes B, a potentially fatal virus to humans. Most people are infected through bites or scratches.

The test used to determine if a monkey has the virus is "good but not 100 percent accurate," said Wright. If a monkey tests negative, many zoos still manage the animal as if it has the virus, he said, because the consequence of a false test can be deadly to human handlers.

The health and safety hazards associated with exposure to monkeys and other nonhuman primates prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 1975 to prohibit them from being imported into the United States for use as pets.

Today, monkeys offered for sale are surplus animals from zoos and laboratories or from breeders, says April Truitt, founder of The Primate Rescue Center in Kentucky.

The babies are pulled from their mothers as early as three days old and given an inanimate object, such as a stuffed animal or blanket as a surrogate mother. Most of these young primates, say experts, develop aberrant behaviors such as rocking, self-grasping, and digit sucking.

Once monkeys reach sexual maturity they can become dangerous, says Wright, of the Phoenix Zoo. Smaller monkeys become sexually mature around 18 to 24 months. Larger primates, like orangutans and chimps, reach puberty between five and ten years of age.

Aggressive Displays

In an attempt to establish dominance, monkeys may attack their human family members. Once owners realize they can't handle the animals, they look to place them in other homes.

Zoos don't take former pets. Some unwanted primates end up in sanctuaries to live out their remaining days. Sadly, most end up being sold and resold over and over again. Others are sent to laboratories or used in breeding programs.

As pets grow older, stronger and more unpredictable, some owners may attempt to change the animal's natural behavior. Sanctuary owners say those tactics include confinement in small enclosures, chaining, shocking, beating, and removal of teeth and nails to prevent scratching and biting.

"Primates are wild animals," said Truitt of the Primate Rescue Center. "No amount of surgical mutilation, training, or beating will ever change that."

An interview request was declined by Charles Stonecipher, vice president of the Simian Society of America, an organization primarily composed of private owners. Another interview request sent to President Walt Gresham was unanswered as of press time.

On average, Truitt receives two phone calls a day from people who want to relinquish their animals. Primatology students also call requesting permission to visit the sanctuary, which has more than 50 primates, to study animal behavior.

"What they want to study is normal behaviors, but there's so little of that going on at our place because all of our animals are ex-pets or lab animals that were reared in isolation," Truitt said. "There's not a normal thing about them. Not how they eat; not how they relate to others."

The influx of unwanted animals has become overwhelming for the dozens of sanctuaries in the United States.

Five years ago, when Truitt couldn't house an animal at her sanctuary she'd call another one and easily place it. Today, she said that's not the case. Most sanctuaries are full, or near capacity.

"It's becoming an epidemic," said Kari Bagnall, founder of Jungle Friends. The Florida sanctuary receives e-mails and phone calls every day from people wanting to get rid of their monkeys.

"We're full right now," she said. "I don't know where they're all going to end up."

Former Las Vegas organ grinder Sony Rickson, who owns four capuchin monkeys ranging in age from 7 to 12, created the Monkey Moms Web site to educate potential owners, and gets 200 e-mails a day seeking advice and guidance.

"I think it takes a certain type of person to own a monkey," she said. "If you're committed, I don't have a problem with it."

Aggression, though, is a problem. Rickson said she was attacked just a few days ago by one of her capuchins.

"You never know which ones will grow up and attack and which ones won't," she said. "I have one that I worked with for seven years and I'd go everywhere with her—and all of a sudden one day she just turned on me. I have another one that I raised from a baby who wouldn't even think of biting me."

When asked about the use of shock collars, Rickson said she did not know of anyone with a small monkey that uses them. Removing all of the animal's teeth, though, is a common practice, she said, especially amongst organ grinders.

"If a person is doing it as a last resort to protect themselves, I don't have a problem with it," said Rickson, who quickly added that she has not removed her pets' teeth. "It doesn't stop the monkey from eating what it's suppose to be eating."

Currently she is working on opening a placement and rescue center for primates in California.

If given the chance to turn back the hands of time, she said her life would be different.

"I wouldn't have a pet monkey," she said. "It's sad to watch the depression they go through if they're not getting enough one-on-one attention. These are the types of animals that should be left in the jungle."

The Perils of Keeping Monkeys as Pets (2024)


The Perils of Keeping Monkeys as Pets? ›

They are escape artists and they are strong — they can cause a lot of damage to themselves and their surroundings. Primates can become violent toward humans who try to domesticate them. If kept isolated in captivity, they can develop mental health problems that can cause them to attack and injure people.

What are the perils of keeping monkeys as pets? ›

Close contact with monkeys can expose people to zoonotic diseases, and these are diseases that can be passed from animals to people. Some illnesses, like the herpes B virus, can be extremely harmful and even fatal.

What are the disadvantages of having a pet monkey? ›

  • Potentially dangerous to have in your home because of disease risk and aggression.
  • Very difficult to give them enough physical and mental stimulation.
  • Need ample space in your home for them to climb and swing.
  • Hard to find a vet who specializes in capuchins.
Dec 13, 2023

What are the benefits of having a monkey as a pet? ›

They are incredibly social animals, intelligent, and able to learn tasks and tricks quickly. Those are the pros. There can be a rather sizable expense with owning a monkey. You will need to create a secure enclosure and have the proper permits.

Is it okay to own a monkey? ›

States with Outright Bans to Own a Monkey in US

This category includes: Northeast: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. West: Washington, Utah, Colorado, California, Hawaii. Others: Kentucky, Georgia.

What are monkeys biggest threats? ›

Industrial agriculture, large-scale cattle ranching, logging, petroleum drilling, mining, dams and road-building are destroying primate habitat, while commercial hunting (known as the bushmeat trade), illegal pet trade and disease are impacting primate populations directly.

Do monkeys affect the environment? ›

Monkeys play an important role in their native habitats by pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds as they travel.

Why can't monkeys be potty trained? ›

Monkeys are highly excitable animals and will relieve themselves whenever and wherever they are upset. Though you may be somewhat successful diapering or toilet-training a young monkey, once the monkey reaches maturity, that training is forgotten or ignored.

Why do baby monkeys jerk? ›

Young macaques use “gecker” calls (best described as “ik ik ik” screams with a body jerk) when in distress to attract their mothers' attention.

Do monkeys feel happy? ›

We discovered that doing grooming makes monkeys feel relaxed, and that even observing others groom has the same effect. These findings suggest that for monkeys, being nice—or just watching others being nice—makes them feel good.

What happens to pet monkeys when they get older? ›

When pet monkeys reach maturity, they can become difficult to handle and may even injure their owners. Many end up being rehomed to sanctuaries, or may even be released into the wild where their chance of survival is very low.

In which states are monkeys legal? ›

Download Table Data
StatePet Monkey Legality
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Is it safe to live with a monkey? ›

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.

Are monkeys hard to have as pets? ›

Overall, monkeys are not good pets. Yes, some can be quite sweet for a time. But the reality is monkeys are capable of causing too much harm and need too much care and attention to thrive in a human household. These issues are equally as important when it comes to apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, and gibbons).

Do pet monkeys carry diseases? ›

Monkeys should not be kept as pets. In fact, many states in the U.S. ban private ownership of monkeys and other primates. Monkeys can carry and transmit diseases to humans, especially the herpes B virus, which can potentially be fatal to a person who is bitten, scratched, or spit on by a monkey.

Why are monkeys a nuisance? ›

Through frequent contact with humans, some wild monkeys have become fearless of humans and exhibit aggressive behaviour; they may also stray into nearby suburban residential areas in search of easy food.

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