What qualities do you look for in a pet? Personality? Disposition? Cuteness? Recently, it was brought to my attention that someone was attempting to sell baby capuchin monkeys as pets in the classified ads of one of our local newspapers. The ad stated that the monkeys were “all wearing diapers and were on the bottle.” This is utterly appalling to me. As a zookeeper, I have spent most of my adult life trying to get people to understand that wild animals should never be treated as pets…and picking up the pieces when someone does it anyway.
Truly domestic animals such dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc. have been selectively bred over a period of hundreds or even thousands of years for social traits that allow them to co-exist with humans in a domestic setting. Their social development is dramatically shortened and aggressive animals have, for the most part, been bred out. Many people believe that simply hand raising a wild animal by humans will “tame” or “domesticate” the animal, despite the many tragic instances that have proven otherwise. Think back to Travis the chimp.
The truth is that wild animals, especially primates, need to be raised by their own mothers in order to learn how to interact with their peers. Many social behaviors are learned, not innate, and denying an animal the opportunity to learn the social norms of its species because we think it makes a cute pet or is a status symbol (think Nimitz the alligator) is selfish and cruel. A child kept in a cage all day save a few hours in the evenings when the parents get home would be removed from the home for abuse. When it comes to children we always do what is best for the child, even it is difficult for us, why do we treat animals any differently?
As a zookeeper, one of the hardest parts of my job has always been trying to integrate former pets back into a group of their own species. When the “pet” reaches sexual maturity and gets to be too difficult to control (and it ALWAYS does) the owner donates it to the zoo where they convince themselves that it will live happily ever after. Sadly, this is not the case. These animals are ostracized or worse by their peers for lack of social skills. I have seen a gibbon who plucked out all her own hair every time she was introduced to another gibbon, and a drill, the most endangered primate in Africa, who showed more interest in mating with his human keepers than with the two female drills with whom he shared his habitat. These animals are fated to live out their remaining 30-40 years of life in solitary confinement.
Wild animals should be treated with respect and enjoyed from a distance. When your friends and family are looking for a pet, encourage them to check out the local animal shelter where many dogs and cats are desperate for good homes. And, if you are wondering what happened to those baby capuchin monkeys? Oakland Zoo staff reported it to California Department of Fish and Wildlife who stopped the importation of those monkeys into our state. As residents of California, we are fortunate to live in a state with the strictest laws in the country regarding wild animals as pets. Until all states protect wild animals by prohibiting private ownership, we must continue to educate the public about the long term damage that private pet ownership causes to these wild animals who clearly deserve better.