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The Facts about Primates as 'Pets'

In many states, people are allowed to keep primates in their homes and backyards without restrictions or with only minimal oversight.

Primates are bred in captivity in the United States and sold for the pet trade. It is uncertain how many primates enter the trade through captive breeding each year, but the number is estimated to be in the thousands.

Often bought as cute infants, primates tend to exhibit unpredictable behavior after the age of 2. As they reach sexual maturity, they become larger and more aggressive, and will bite to defend themselves and to establish dominance. Of monkey bites reported since 1990, many resulted in serious injury to the possessor, a neighbor or stranger. Some of these incidents tragically involved children.

Human Health Concerns

Compounding the risk of physical injury to the public, primates of all sizes potentially can transmit to humans dangerous viral diseases such as yellow fever, monkey pox, Ebola and Marburg virus, Herpes simiae (herpes B), simian immunodeficency virus (SIV, the primate form of HIV), viral hepatitis and measles.

Eighty to 90 percent of all macaque monkeys are infected with herpes B virus or simian B, a virus that is harmless to monkeys but fatal to 70 percent of humans who contract it. Monkeys shed the virus intermittently in saliva or genital secretions, which generally occur when the monkey is ill or under stress, or it's breeding season.

At any given time, about 2 percent of infected macaque monkeys are shedding the virus. A person who is bitten, scratched, sneezed on or spat on while the shedding occurs runs the risk of contracting the disease. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) asserts that the increase in macaque monkeys in the pet trade may constitute an emerging infectious disease threat in the United States.

Bacterial zoonotic diseases are easily transmitted when monkeys are kept as a pets, and children are especially at risk. Some of these bacteria include mycobacteria, responsible for tuberculosis; salmonella and shigella, which may result in severe diarrhea; and campylobacter, one of the leading causes of diarrhea in humans and that often is found in primates.

Environmental contamination from pet primates is of great concern. Poor hygiene and improper disposal of contaminated feces pose a serious problem. Many disease organisms can persist in the environment for long periods of time and may pose a serious threat to humans. Environmental contamination may be a significant danger to the communities where pet primates are kept.

Animal Welfare Concerns

The conditions in which privately owned exotic animals are kept raise serious animal welfare concerns. Most people cannot provide the special care, housing, diet and maintenance that exotic animals require. Many animals who have become too difficult for their owners to care for, or who have outgrown their usefulness as "pets" or profit-makers, end up languishing in small pens in backyards, doomed to live in deplorable conditions. Sometimes they are abandoned or killed.

Born Free USA is especially familiar with the harm that can come from private possession of primates. We own and operate the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary, in south Texas, one of only a few primate sanctuaries in the United States where the majority of residents live in free-ranging natural enclosures of several acres. The sanctuary is refuge to a number of former pets who were abandoned by their owners because of disturbed and aggressive behavior.


There are no federal laws in the United States that ban primate ownership or exotic animal ownership in general.

As a result, responsibility for protecting people and non-human primates falls to the individual states. Currently there is a patchwork of state laws regarding "pet" primates. Twenty-two states ban private possession of primates and three states have a partial ban. Eleven states require a license or permit for some or all primates, and 14 allow primates as pets with virtually no oversight.

The current trend across the country is passing legislation to prohibit specific species of dangerous exotic animals, including non-human primates, from future possession. This is important in allowing for a more uniform approach to successfully handle this issue nationwide.

Born Free USA is a nationally recognized leader on the issue of non-human primates and other wild and exotic animals kept as pets. We offer legislators and concerned citizens our assistance and experience in addressing this important animal welfare and human health and safety issue.

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