The British Primate Pet Trade: time to bring it to an end

By: Heather Coupe, Bristol

Primate usage in both scientific and zoological establishments is heavily regulated. Both great apes and wild-caught primates are prohibited in a research setting throughout the EU, and ‘special justification’ is mandatory for all other primates (Jennings, 2010). So, why are UK regulations regarding the primate pet trade so nonchalant and, for want of a better word, negligent?


At this very moment, you or I could browse the internet and purchase a primate with little to nothing stopping us. With a quick google search and a few clicks, adverts such as “baby pygmy marmoset for sale”, “marmoset monkey looking for a good home” and “capuchin, marmoset, squirrel and spider monkeys for sale” were easily discovered. Not only is this information shocking, but it highlights several problems with this online trade. Many of these adverts fail to speciate the primate for sale and simply state the type, such as “marmoset” or “capuchin”, as above. There are also certain species such as the cotton-top tamarin which are graded as critically endangered by the IUCN (Savage and Causado, 2014).

Wild Futures estimate that anywhere between 3,000 and 9,000 primates are present within the UK pet trade, but exactly how many is currently unknown. Local authority data can, however, provide information regarding primates licensed under the Dangerous Wild Animals act, revealing that 339 individuals were licensed in 2012 (RSPCA, 2016). Worryingly, the British trade in pet primates by no means appears to be slowing down. In 2013, calls to the RSPCA’s Cruelty and Advice Line saw a 73% increase in comparison to 2012, representing the highest number in over a decade (RSPCA, 2016).

According to a decade of RSPCA data, the predominant ‘pet of choice’ for primate enthusiasts in the UK appears to be the marmoset (81%), followed by the capuchin and squirrel monkey (RSPCA, 2016). Most of these animals appear to be acquired from breeders and private dealers, though specialist dealers and pet shops have also been implicated in their supply (Soulsbury et al., 2008).

The ability to experience emotions and suffer is not exclusive to humans within the primate order, and some species are even able to reflect on past feelings and experiences. This, theoretically, could enhance their capacity to suffer (Smith and Boyd, 2002). Within the last decade, the RSPCA has investigated 497 separate incidents involving at least 937 ‘pet’ primates. This is estimated to be “four to twelve times higher than calls about more common companion animals” (RSPCA, 2016), raising a whole range of welfare concerns about our ability to provide for their needs effectively.

Primates are, for the most part, highly social beings forming complex and sophisticated relationships with one another. Social dependence on other group members continues for a prolonged period after nutritional weaning, and the ability to interact with one another provides the opportunity for enrichment, learning, solace and security (DEFRA, 2010). One study on the long-term effects of social deprivation in primates analysed black-capped capuchins rescued from the primate pet trade.

Results showed significantly higher frequencies of abnormal behaviours in the individuals kept in social isolation when compared to those kept in social groups (Bee, 2017). Though it may be fairly obvious to us as veterinary students that primates should be housed in groups, an astonishing 60% of primates out of 198 RSPCA incidents were housed alone according to RSPCA investigations (RSPCA, 2016).


The practice of hand-rearing, widely used to produce more ‘tame’ animals, is exceptionally common among breeders. Investigating UK websites selling primates, I found high levels of sales adverts for hand-reared individuals, with one advert charging nearly double for hand vs parent-reared squirrelmonkeys, stating that “the monkeys will be more sociable and friendly due to the human bond already established”. Early weaning is to be strongly discouraged, having been linked to copious problems in later life to include abnormal behaviours, reduced breeding and aggressive tendencies (Hevesi, 2005). It has also been associated with lifelong medical complications such as dental and bone developmental problems (National Anti-Vivisection Society, 2008).

Unsuitable housing and poor provision of needs is seen extensively among private primate keepers, whether intentional or not. Primates are exceptionally intelligent beings and providing a sufficient captive environment is nigh-on impossible. RSPCA data revealed that over a quarter of enclosures were deemed inappropriately small, with some measuring only 0.27m 2 area and 0.6m height (RSPCA,2016). These small housing situations cause unnecessary stress due to restriction of their ability to escape both conflict and aversive stimuli. Monkey World have rescued 78 pet monkeys and apes from Britain since 1989 and report that these individuals come from “some of the worst conditions” among those at the sanctuary (Thinking of Keeping a Monkey as a Pet?, 2014). Sub-optimal conditions in primates have been association with a vast spectrum of atypical behaviours to include abnormal repetitive behaviours, self-harm and depression. Examples of poor welfare related to this include pacing, rocking, self-biting, over-grooming and consumption of urine and faeces (DEFRA, 2010). From a dietary perspective, replicating primates specialised nutritional requirements in captivity is challenging, demonstrated with the high prevelance of Wasting Marmoset Syndrome in captive populations (National Anti-Vivisection Society, 2008). The high sugar and carbohydrate alongside the low fibre content in owners’ diets, when fed to pet primates results in medical issues such as tooth decay, diabetes and heart disease (National Anti-Vivisection Society, 2008).

From a conservational standpoint, international trade in primates has been identified as a significant endangerment to their conservational status (Nijman et al., 2011). The business of trafficking exotic animals is valued at $12 billion per annum, and evidence now links this market to other illegal trades, particularly consumption of bushmeat (National Anti-Vivisection Society, 2008). A study on the Critically Endangered Margarita capuchin monkeys investigated the impact of the pet trade on their conservational status. Results revealed that out of the 300 individuals in the wild population, at least 100 have been hunted in the past 25 years for the pet trade (Ceballos-Mago, González and Chivers, 2010).

The suitability of primates in a household setting should also be considered from a zoonotic perspective. A study on pet capuchin monkeys detected intestinal parasites known to survive in bothhumans and domestic species such as Blastocystis hominis, Strongyloides stercolaris and Ancylostomas sp. (Ceballos-Mago, González and Chivers, 2010). The origins of many pet primates cannot be definitively proven, and most species are able to transmit diseases that could impose significant risk to human health such as Ebola, Herpes B and Tuberculosis (National Anti-Vivisection Society, 2008). On the contrary, there are several human diseases that monkeys and apes potentially have little to no resistance towards such as the common cold, measles and influenza (National Anti-Vivisection Society, 2008).

There are three main laws currently in place to restrict trade in primates as pets in the UK. The Animal Welfare Act 2006, in which private primate keepers (and all pet owners) have a duty of care to their animals and must prevent unnecessary suffering (RSPCA, 2016). This had two major flaws; first, most pet primates are untraceable so there is no effective way to monitor their welfare and second, this legislation contains no specific controls for primates (British Veterinary Association, 2014). To combat the latter, Defra created the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Privately Kept Primates (“Primate Code”) in 2010 (DEFRA, 2010). Although owners are not legally obliged to follow the primate code, this code can be used as evidence in court if required. However, this guidance is decidedly open to interpretation due to the non-specificity of applying to all primates, from lemur to chimpanzee. The BVA have issued concerns with this code that it could be seen as “a sign of approval by the general public that it was ethically acceptable to keep such species in their home” (British Veterinary Association, 2014). The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 is a UK law restricting the keeping of the majority of primate species without a local authority license (RSPCA, 2016). This legislation interestingly does not apply to many of the most commonly kept species such as marmosets, tamarins and squirrel monkeys. In addition, one study suggested that only an estimated 5-15% of owners who should be in possession of this license actually have one (Greenwood, Cusdin and Radford, 2001), with those wrongly not in possession facing minimal consequences. The Pet Animals Act 1951 states that licenses are required for any persons selling animals as part of a business (RSPCA, 2016). Unsurprisingly, this also has its limitations in that it has proven difficult for local authorities to show that purchases are business transactions, and application to internet selling has proved challenging in recent years.

So, what can be done to reduce this trade further? A ban on specific species and/or groups of primates as pets has been established in 15 European countries to date (RSPCA, 2016). In order to facilitate this ban, most of these countries gave existing owners a time period – usually three to six months – in which to alert the authorities and register the primate in their care (RSPCA, 2016). This would be beneficial in the UK as it would avoid having to rehome potentially thousands of primates. However, the BVA has expressed concerns as to whether a general licensing scheme would effectively target ‘non-compliant keepers who would be unlikely to participate’ (British Veterinary Association, 2014). Other countries such as Denmark also require individual identification of each primate and forbade the breeding of pet primates (RSPCA, 2016).

Several organisations have already released clear statements opposing the suitability of primates as pets to include The Primate Society of Great Britain, The International Primatological Society and Ape Alliance. If all of these well-respected professionals are saying no, why are the government not taking action? Even if we can all agree that primates are not suitable pets, implementing a total ban could prove difficult and could drive the market underground. The best option, in my opinion, would not be to decriminalise the trade, but to add in extra regulations including background checks, obligatory training programmes and certificates. We could then, as a nation, work towards gradual decriminalisation and keep primates where they belong…in the wild!



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