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March 6th, 2009
Spark Blog: The Science Behind Why Chimps Are Not Pets


Researcher Brian Hare is a strong advocate for eliminating the chimpanzee pet trade, as we learned when we filmed with him at the North Carolina Zoo. After the recent news that a pet chimp violently attacked a woman in Connecticut, we asked Brian to further describe his stance for The Human Spark audience. Read on to learn why he is so strongly against anyone keeping a chimp for a pet.

The Science Behind Why Chimpanzees Are Not Pets

By Brian Hare & Vanessa Woods
Duke University, Department of Evolutionary Anthropology

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 incident 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 questions 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.  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 instead lived in as close contact with wolves. By living together with us for thousands of years, domesticated animals have been bred to live together with humans relatively harmoniously.
Domestication is the process of breeding out aggression toward humans

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 and 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, have close family bonds and prefer peace they can also be extremely violent –- sometimes leading to lethal aggression (i.e. murder).
Wild chimpanzees kill each other…it is in their nature.


Why do people think chimpanzees 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 (at around $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. It is estimated there are over 700 pet chimpanzees in U.S. homes of unknown origin (i.e. many may have been smuggled illegally from Africa). Many of these chimps 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.
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 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 loopholes exist in almost every state. Chances are, your neighbor can legally own a pet chimpanzee and that infant chimpanzees, which are highly endangered in their natural habitat in Africa, are still being smuggled into the U.S. to be sold as pets.
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 are highly endangered but still 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. However, 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 given the fact that they are so endangered.
U.S. pet chimpanzees seem hypocritical to Africans who know they need protection

You can help. Send a letter to your senators urging them to support the Captive Primate Safety Act that recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

More in the news:

Organizations working to help orphan chimpanzees:

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