The Sciences

Why Chimpanzees Are NOT Pets

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumNov 13, 2009 3:49 PM


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In February, 55-year-old Charla Nash made headlines around the world when she was brutally attacked by a friend's 200-pound pet chimpanzee. She decided to reveal her disfigured face on Oprah this week and I am posting a clip* because I have extremely strong emotions concerning this particular issue--foremost as a result of my conservation biology background and also due to my friendship with science writer Vanessa Woods and her husband, evolutionary anthropologist Dr. Brian Hare. Together they study sanctuary orphans in Congo and often mothers have been killed so the babies can be sold as pets.

Most people still do not seem to understand the gravity of this issue. After watching, make sure to read Brian's original guest contribution on the science behind why chimpanzees are not pets below the fold.

(A warning to readers of graphic content.)

The Science Behind Why Chimpanzees Are Not Pets

by Brian Hare

, Evolutionary Anthropologist at Duke University

Last month

, a 200 pound male chimpanzee named Travis mauled a woman outside the home where he has been living with his owner Sandra Herold. Charla Nash was nearly killed by Travis and now has life changing wounds to her face while Travis was stabbed by his owner with a butcher knife and shot dead by the police. Was this incidence preventable or just a freak accident? Should chimpanzees and other primates be kept as pets? What is the effect of the primate pet trade not only on the welfare of these “pets” but on their species survival in the wild? To answer these question I consider what science has to say and draw on both my own work on domestication and over 50 years of research by primatologists on wild chimpanzees.

Domesticated animals are biologically different Most people keep domesticated animals, whether it’s a dog, cat or a cow. We know the biological systems in their bodies that control stress responses are down regulated relative to wild animals. This means that the average dog, cat, cow, etc. stays much more calm in a stressful situation than a wolf, lion or buffalo in the same situation. Because domesticated animals do not become as stressed, they rarely if ever attack humans compared to wild animals. It’s true that 23 Americans died last year from dog bites, but this statistic would be many times higher if the 68 million dog owners had wolves instead. By living together with us for thousands of years domesticated animals have been bred to live together with humans relatively harmoniously.

Summary: Domestication is the process of breeding out aggression

Chimpanzees are not domesticated animals Although chimpanzees share more DNA in common with humans than they do with gorillas, they are not domesticated animals. So while a tiny percentage of pet dogs will bite a human,- all chimpanzees and all primates will readily bite a human. Moreover, chimpanzees in captivity can weigh between 150-220 pounds, live for over 60 years, and grow to be many times stronger than any human. In the wild, chimpanzees spend a lot of time defending their social status – they often seriously injure each other in fights (biting off fingers, testicles, face tissue, etc) and are known to occasionally hunt and kill rivals and their infants. After 50 years of research on wild chimpanzees we now know that, like people, while they are extremely social and prefer peace they can also be extremely violent – sometimes leading to murder.

Summary: Wild chimpanzees kill each other…it is in their nature.

Why do people think chimps make good pets? Baby chimpanzees look a lot like human babies. They have fingers and toes, and they laugh and pout- they are adorable. People who sell chimpanzees as pets sell babies because no one would ever buy a 200 pound adult chimpanzee. Travis was bought as a baby from a group of trainers who used infant chimpanzees in TV commercials and in children’s birthday parties. Chimpanzee breeders are in the business of selling chimpanzees (~$50,000 each) not educating their customers about the hazards of pet ownership. In addition, Hollywood hires infant chimpanzees to star in movies that show them as cute human imitations. Currently, there are over 700 pet chimpanzees in US homes of unknown origin (i.e. they may be smuggled from Africa). Many of these chimp live decades in horrible conditions and present a real risk to neighbors. ALL primates potentially carry diseases deadly to humans including Herpes B, Yellow Fever, Monkeypox, Ebola virus, Marburg virus, SIV, HIV and tuberculosis.

Summary: Breeders and hollywood portray infant chimpanzees as suitable pets

What laws exist to protect the public from the hazards of pet primates? Currently there are no federal laws in the United States or Europe preventing the sale or purchase of a chimpanzee or other great apes born outside of Africa after 1976. There are state laws in the U.S. preventing the sale of primates such as chimpanzees but many loop holes exist in almost every state. Chances are, your neighbor can legally own a pet chimpanzee.

Summary: No federal law prevents the sale or purchase of chimpanzees in U.S.

What message do U.S. chimpanzee pet owners send to Africa? Chimpanzees live in tropical forest in over a dozen African countries. It is illegal to own, purchase or sell a chimpanzee in all of these countries. Unfortunately, an international trade rages in Africa - including the sale of great apes like chimpanzees. Hunters shoot mothers and sell their bodies as meat to rich city dwellers who can afford the luxury. They pull babies off the backs of their dead mothers to sell in the markets as pets. These pet traders are doing nothing worse than what is done in the United States legally: baby chimpanzees are pulled off their mothers backs and sold as pets. I have had Africans who have seen U.S. television shows with Hollywood chimpanzees dressed in clothing ask me why people in the U.S. can have chimpanzees as pets while someone in Africa cannot….they wonder why chimpanzees in the United States are not protected?

Summary: U.S. Pet Chimpanzees seem hypocritical to Africans who know they need protection

You can help. Send a letter to you senators urging them to support the Captive Primate Safety Act. Go to:

Links items related to the Pet Chimpanzee Issue

News Reports:

Articles/ Newspaper coverage:

Legislation Under Consideration: Find information on the Human Society’s website about the Captive Primate Safety Act and from which you can send a letter to you senators urging them to support the legislation. Go to: Organizations working to help orphan chimpanzees: (originally published March 4th, 2009)

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