Owning cuddly Capuchins and chimps can be risky — and often illegal
In March, Justin Bieber received an adorable, baby Capuchin monkey as a birthday gift from music producer pal Jamal “Mally Mall” Rashid.
Bieber treated the pet to a taste of the high life: The two jetted around on Bieber’s rented Cessna Citation X, one of the world’s fastest private jets.
But the tour ended early for Mally the monkey when Bieber abandoned him in a Munich animal clinic after he was seized by German authorities. Bieber did not have the proper paperwork or health documents to import the pet.
They are often taken from their mothers just days after they’re born by their breeders. Many of these animals are sold and bred illegally or under poor conditions. Once they reach sexual maturity, they often become unpredictable and aggressive, and their owners are unable to handle them. On top of that, it’s actually illegal to keep pet primates in most states, including New York and California, where Bieber lives.
“Monkeys are not surrogate children, and they’re not little people,” cautions Debbie Leahy, manager of Captive Wildlife Protection for the Humane Society. Leahy says an estimated 15,000 monkeys are kept as pets in the United States — but believes it’s probably twice that number.
Experts say it’s nearly impossible for someone in a private home to provide a safe, healthy environment for a monkey. “Even if you have endless dollars to spend, it’s still challenging,” says veterinarian Edward Spindel of the Animal Ark Veterinary Hospital in Baldwinsville, NY, who specializes in primates.
Tim Ajax, director of Born Free Primate, a sanctuary located in Texas, agrees. “The only one truly qualified to raise a monkey is the monkey’s mother,” he says. In mom’s absence, Ajax recommends they live in a large outdoor enclosure with trees. Proper care is “frequently beyond the financial capabilities of most pet owners,” he says.
And monkeys are extremely social. “They should spend their entire lives in a group environment,” says Leahy.
They also require commercially prepared monkey food supplemented by fresh fruits, veggies and greens.
In New York City, only zoos, laboratories or veterinary hospitals are permitted to keep monkeys. They are also allowed for exhibition for showbiz purposes if a permit is obtained from the Department of Health. The New York State Veterinary Medical Society warns that “primates kept as pets can pose risk of both serious injury and zoonotic disease transmission to their human caretakers.”
Over the past 10 years, dangerous incidents involving primates have been reported. Most recently, in 2010, an 8-year-old Capuchin monkey escaped a woman’s home in Oneida Castle, NY, by opening a screen door. Outside, it attacked a woman playing with her son. The monkey bit the woman’s finger while she tried to protect her child, and the monkey was captured and killed.
To keep the animals under control, primate pet owners often resort to cruel means: Pet monkeys sometimes have their teeth removed, are kept in cages and can develop neurotic behaviors as a result.
Fearing a sad fate for Mally, Kari Bagnall, founder of Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Gainesville, Fla., reached out to Justin Bieber several weeks ago to help.
“I interjected, posting to his Facebook page asking if I could be of assistance,” says Bagnall. She succeeded in getting Bieber’s attention and even offered up a home at her sanctuary. (Because Mally was confiscated by German authorities and never returned stateside, the pet couldn’t stay with Bagnall.)
“We had a ready-made family group,” says Bagnall, who hoped Mally could live along with a surrogate mother, Monkers, and a baby Capuchin, Dylan, in their habitat.
Bagnall, who can’t disclose all the details of her exchange with Bieber’s camp because she’s under a nondisclosure agreement, says she spent almost two weeks trying to find Mally a home in Europe but failed: “I’m worried about the little guy.” It now looks like German authorities will likely place Mally in a zoo — hardly a happy ending.
But not all pop stars’ primate pets meet such a sad fate. Michael Jackson’s former chimpanzee, Bubbles, now lives happily at the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary in Wauchula, Fla., with seven other chimps.
“He’s doing wonderfully,” says Patti Ragan, the center’s founder. “He’s a normal chimpanzee.”