October 16, 2006
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) today
released a general Health Advisory on the risks of owning monkeys and other non-human primates. The department strongly discourages Missourians from keeping primates as pets.
According to Dr. Howard Pue, State Public Health Veterinarian, private ownership of monkeys, apes, and "lower primates" such as bushbabies is not uncommon in Missouri and a number of other states. Dr. Pue said the trade in these animals is largely unregulated, so the exact number of privately owned primates is unknown. However, their popularity as "pets" has increased because they are intelligent and have some human-like characteristics, and because they have been portrayed in movies and on television as cute, harmless, and adaptable to human social settings.
Dr. Pue said the view that primates are harmless and can be raised like humans is a gross misconception, since they are capable of inflicting tremendous physical damage and transmitting numerous infectious diseases to people.
"Most people who acquire primates as pets do so as a whim or out of curiosity, not realizing the dangers they and their families might face," Dr. Pue said. "Documented cases describe people who sustained horrible physical wounds inflicted by the long canine teeth and weapon-like nails of primates who turned on them. It's just a bad idea for the average Missourian to own a monkey," he added.
Dr. Pue noted that infant primates are docile and tractable, as any young animal tends to be. But captive primates will begin to ascend the social structure of their human family as they mature, just as they would in the wild, where they normally congregate in groups with a strict social hierarchy. Primates, by virtue of their strength and ability to inflict damage with teeth and nails, soon achieve supremacy over children in the family social order. Even adults are no match for a mature primate - a 20 pound monkey can quickly overwhelm a 200 pound man. Captive breeding and hand rearing will not eliminate the need for the primate to climb the social order - it is "hard wired" into their genetic makeup.
Along with physical threats, primates carry many infectious diseases and parasites that can be transmitted to humans. These include viruses (e.g., measles, rabies, Marburg, Ebola, hepatitis), bacteria (e.g., tuberculosis, salmonella, shigella), fungi (e.g., candidiasis, ringworm), intestinal protozoans and worms, and external parasites such as lice, mites, and fleas. Of particular note is the herpes B virus, which is found in virtually all adult macaque monkeys, although any monkey housed with a macaque can contract and carry the virus. Infection with this virus in the various species of macaques, which include the common rhesus and cynomolgus monkeys, usually results in no apparent disease.
Infected monkeys often give a negative laboratory test, since the virus can "hide" in the body. However, the virus can be present in the saliva and other fluids of the monkey, and poses a severe health threat to anyone
bitten by this animal. Infection in humans may result in ascending encephalomyelitis (inflammation of the brain and covering membranes). While herpes B virus has only been documented in about 40 people, 80 percent of them died from the infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that a macaque bite - or exposure of the eyes, nose, mouth, or broken skin to saliva from a macaque - be treated as an emergency situation. The person must be evaluated by a physician and treated with anti-viral agents within 24 hours of the bite to maximize the chance that treatment will be effective.
Added to significant physical and health threats, primates can also be difficult and very expensive to keep for various reasons, according to Dr. Pue. By the time a primate reaches sexual maturity (which varies greatly by species, but averages four to eight years of age), it has developed many undesirable or even dangerous traits. "Primates generally cannot be 'housebroken', and may relieve themselves anywhere at anytime. They are very uninhibited animals that may engage in natural activities that are embarrassing for people," said Dr. Pue. Dr. Pue said primates also become extremely unpredictable, often lashing out with teeth and nails with no warning when frightened, surprised, or frustrated.
Unlike a domesticated animal such as a dog, primates perceive punishment as a threat and often respond through physical retaliation. "I may be painting an unpleasant picture, but I hope to provide people with a realistic view of what owning a primate can mean, hopefully before they buy one," Dr. Pue said.
Primates may live from 30 to 60 years, which places a tremendous burden on the owner. Once the animal has grown beyond the "cuddly" stage and become unmanageable, owners may abuse it or keep it locked in a cage, which
usually makes the situation worse. Getting rid of a troublesome primate is generally difficult, since most zoos do not accept them and reputable sanctuaries are at or near capacity.
Private ownership of primates is expensive (stringent dietary needs, destruction of household items by inquisitive or unmanageable animals), time-consuming, presents the owner with the potential of legal liability for medical bills and lawsuits from people injured by the animal, and is inhumane in the vast majority of cases. Infant primates are taken from
their mothers at a very young age, depriving them of the nourishing and socializing relationships that are needed for their proper physical and psychological development.
Primates are wild animals that do not have the ability to bond with humans that has evolved in dogs and cats over thousands of years. Through improper societal role models, lack of constant companionship, inadequate diet and housing, and exposure to diseases from people, primates in a household setting often become unhealthy, maladjusted, and a threat to the people around them. Therefore, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services highly discourages private ownership of primates. Primates should instead be maintained in educational and scientific institutions under federal and/or state regulation to protect the health of humans and to promote proper care and well-being of these animals.