For whatever reason, monkeys have long captivated the cultural imagination. Perhaps you read the children's book series "Curious George," and fell in love with the curiously furry critter (who, as it turns out, may not actually be a monkey). Or maybe you cried when Ross Geller gave away his pet Capuchin monkey, Marcel, to the San Diego Zoo on the television sitcom "Friends."
Yes, primates of all kinds are adorable, especially dressed in human clothing and performing whatever cute little tricks we might have taught them to perform. But, let's be clear: It's really, really not a great idea to purchase a pet monkey. Read on to find out why:
1. Legality and Liability
"One of the major challenges of getting a pet monkey is that it's probably illegal since more than half the [U.S.] bans keeping some, or all, primates as pets. Your monkey could be seized, you could be fined, and you'd be out thousands of dollars that could have been put towards a new car or some nice jewelry," says Debbie Leahy, Manager of Captive Wildlife Protection at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which works to end animal suffering.
As the owner of a pet monkey, you might also be liable for any damage a monkey causes to other humans or their property, as the monkey is likely not covered under your homeowner's insurance, says Leahy.
Many countries impose varying restrictions on whether individuals can legally own pet monkeys. In the U.S., restrictions are on a state-by-state basis. Most states that do allow private possession of primates require a permit for legal ownership. If you live in the U.S., the website FindLaw provides a listing of each state's restrictions. In the U.K., it is currently legal to own a pet monkey, but you need a permit; the government has been debating bans in the past decade. The website Eurogroup for Animals has a list of laws regarding pet ownership in other European countries.
There has been a push by several U.K.-based groups to move toward a ban on owning primates; the Primate Society of Great Britain completely opposes pet ownership of non-human primates, according to a 2014 position statement. In the U.S., the Jane Goodall Institute, HSUS and the American Society of Primatologists — along with a number of zoological and veterinary organizations — oppose the private ownership of primates, which includes monkeys. Born Free USA, which operates a 186-acre (75-hectare) primate sanctuary and works to end the exploitation of wild animals, also supports an end to the exotic pet trade.
2. Behavioral Issues and Communication Challenges
This might seem like common sense, but despite the fact that monkeys and humans are both primates, we communicate in very different ways.
"Some primates may interpret non-verbal communications, such as direct eye contact or smiling, as threatening behavior and respond aggressively," says Leahy. "And the animal may become hostile towards certain individuals, which means you should plan to skip vacations for the next 30-plus years as friends, relatives, and neighbors will likely turn down requests to care for the monkey in your absence."
And when a human treats a monkey like a pet instead of a wild animal, they shouldn't be surprised if the monkey behaves in ways that the human might find disagreeable. Expecting a monkey to conform to the norms of human society is neither normal nor likely.
"Monkeys are wild animals, and keeping them in a home, dressing them in human clothing, restraining them with a collar and leash, and treating them like surrogate children won't change that," says Leahy.
Leahy also warned that primates will often defecate and urinate "whenever, and wherever they want, including on top of your kitchen cabinets." Monkeys will also "smear stinky substances on their bodies and others will throw excrement at people." But these behaviors are mild compared to the destruction that a bored, captive monkey can unleash on your household furniture. Say goodbye to that newly upholstered couch!
This sort of relationship between a pet monkey and a human owner is completely at odds with how primates are raised in zoos or sanctuaries. "In a professional setting, interactions between primates and keepers is limited. Primates are kept in appropriate social groupings with other monkeys of their own kind and provided with a variety of enrichments to keep them active, busy, and challenged," says Leahy.
3. Habitat Concerns and Noise Issues
Monkeys can thrive in a variety of environments and climates, including rainforest, savannah and mountainous terrains. Some primates spend their time hanging out in treetops and others on the ground. But one situation that they cannot do well in — under most circumstances — is captivity, whether that be in a zoo or when they are kept as pets.
"Each species of primate has evolved over millennia to live successfully in their natural habitat. Based on these factors alone, it quickly becomes evident that captivity — no matter how extensive or well-constructed — cannot begin to meet the myriad needs of any primate species," says Dr. Liz Tyson, Primate Sanctuary Director for Born Free USA.
According to Leahy, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends that chimpanzees be kept in a habitat of no less than 2,000 square feet (186 square meters) of indoor and outdoor space and vertical heights of more than 20 feet (6 meters); similar guidelines would likely apply for monkeys as well. You'd also need adequate shade, water and climbing structures for primates of any kind. "Primates would much prefer to be kept outdoors in spacious, natural habitat enclosures," says Leahy.
Many homeowners considering pet monkeys would definitely be unable to provide these basic habitat requirements, particularly for individuals living in cramped or urban dwellings. In addition to limited confines, Leahy notes other household horrors that could gravely injure a monkey. These include ingestion of cleaning products and household plants; strangulation due to leashes or cords used on window blinds; burning due to contact with stoves, irons, light bulbs and candles; and falling from windows.
"Monkeys are escape artists and pose a risk to the community when kept as pets in residential areas," says Leahy. According to her, HSUS has compiled data that shows more than 200 people have been injured since 1990 in "dangerous incidents" related to primates kept as pets or in private captivity. Leahy further explains that escaped pet primates are often shot by authorities. And if the monkey does attack a human, the pet is likely to captured, tested for disease and killed.
Even in less catastrophic situations, monkeys are still highly disruptive, which could lead to some not-so-friendly encounters with your neighbors. "Some primates can be very vocal, which your neighbors may not appreciate. For example, howler monkeys are so loud they can be heard miles away, gibbons emit a variety of noisy and lengthy "hoo"-type calls, and others may vocalize with grunts, squeaks, whistles, and screams," says Leahy. And certain urban noise pollution, including fireworks and sirens, can also cause stress in the primates themselves.
4. Emotional Impact and the Monkey's Well-Being
Everything from lifestyle to the general impact of being separated from their mothers — all of these factors can have a devastating impact on a pet monkey's physical and mental well-being.
"Monkeys kept as pets are, generally speaking, removed from their mothers before they are weaned — creating the potential for lifelong emotional and physical consequences," says Tyson. "Monkeys denied the opportunity to grow up in a natural social group can develop serious behavioral abnormalities."
These abnormalities are also referred to as "stereotypies" which Tyson describes as "purposeless, repetitive behaviors such as rocking, pacing and self-harming." Stereotypies are markers of mental distress that appear only in captive wild animals.
And these mental stressors linger on, even if the monkey has been relocated to a zoo or sanctuary and is no longer being treated as a pet. Fights and injuries can sadly occur between the former pet and members of its own species.
"Even those monkeys who are lucky enough, relatively speaking, to be eventually rehomed to a sanctuary where they may be given the opportunity to live with others of their own kind, can find living with other monkeys extremely frightening at first due the fact they have been denied the opportunity to learn proper social skills in their infancy and childhood," says Tyson.
The most infamous case in recent years is perhaps pop singer Justin Bieber's pet monkey, which was seized in Germany in 2013 after the celebrity failed to provide sufficient documentation. Years later, the monkey still struggles to acclimate to zoo life and even speak its native Capuchin language.
5. Diet Challenges and Physical Ailments
If you think feeding a pet monkey is just as easy as feeding your cat Whiskers, think again. Primates have a wide-ranging diet and consume fruits, insects, leaves, bark, nuts, seeds and even small animals.
"Since proper diets can be expensive and time-consuming to prepare, primates kept as pets may be fed junk food and unhealthy snacks, leading to diabetes — a common ailment in pet primates caused by a poor diet," says Leahy.
According to Tyson, monkeys that are raised by human owners in unnatural living environments often experience a battery of serious physical health issues, including stunted growth and osteoporosis (a type of bone disease).
"We believe that the keeping of monkeys as pets is simply cruel and, regardless of the difficulties that the owner or their family might face, it will always cause a level of suffering to the individual monkey," says Tyson. "Put simply, a human home can never provide an environment in which a monkey can thrive."
6. Disease Transmission
Lastly, like many wild animals, monkeys carry diseases that are dangerous to humans.
"Even the smallest species of primate can bite or scratch and carry the risk of spreading zoonotic (transferable from animal to human) illnesses," Tyson says.
Leahy notes that while zoo professionals and lab workers wear special garments to protect against disease, it's unlikely that a pet owner would take the same precautions. And disease transmission is hardly a one-way street. People could easily transmit diseases to their pet primates.
"For example, some primates are susceptible to measles, and the virus that causes cold sores in people can be deadly to smaller primates," says Leahy. "Irresponsible monkey owners who bring their pets to stores, banks, parks, restaurants, and other public settings are not only putting the public at risk, they are risking the health of their primate."
Tips: Other Ways to Help Monkeys
Okay, so we've established that are serious considerations against owning a monkey.
But what if you still want to give back to these primates in some way? After all, there are plenty of monkeys (like former pets and medical research subjects that live in zoos or primate sanctuaries) who could use your financial support.
"Instead of getting a pet monkey, the Humane Society of the United States recommends that people support primate sanctuaries that are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries," says Leahy.
One such sanctuary is Born Free USA. You can donate to Born Free USA by informally adopting and receiving updates about one of the animals at their primate sanctuary. Alternatively, you can give funds to their Feed a Monkey program; $5 will provide a week of food for a monkey at the sanctuary. You can find a list of other accredited primate sanctuaries around the world here.
Learn more about monkeys in "Exploring Nature: Monkeys: Baboons, Macaques, Mandrills, Lemurs And Other Primates" by Tom Jackson. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.