Primates as "Pets"? Not on Your Life

07/19/2011 03:57 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2011

In bedrooms and backyards across America, people keep nonhuman primates as "pets." The desperate, misplaced need for this type of cruel companionship is alarming. Chimpanzees and monkeys belong not in our homes, but in the wild, and it is time for legislators in Washington, DC to take a firm stand against this epidemic.

Born Free USA is working to pass the federal Captive Primate Safety Act (S. 1324). Introduced on July 6 by U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), David Vitter (R-LA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the bill prohibits interstate commerce in nonhuman primates if they are destined for private ownership as pets. I hope this bill will become law before the end of the year. Senator Boxer said the ban is "long overdue." I could not agree more.

After the infamous 2009 case where a "pet" chimpanzee named Travis severely mauled and permanently disfigured a woman in Connecticut before being shot and killed, the bill was approved by the full House and by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, but time ran out before it could be enacted into law. Must another tragedy strike before the legislative process fully runs its course?

Senator Blumenthal knows firsthand how vital this effort is:

Primates and other exotic animals are a public safety risk when kept as pets, as shown by the tragic accident that occurred in my home state of Connecticut. This bill is an important step toward protecting the public and correcting a vague and flawed federal law that fails to prohibit non-human primates as pets. This much-needed legislation will close this loophole and ensure that accidents like the chimp attack in Stamford never happen again.

Primate "owners" like to claim it is safe to possess these wild animals. Safe for whom? It is neither safe for the animals themselves nor the people who come into contact with them -- often young children. Primates are often physically manipulated to make them less dangerous -- I have heard of fingernails being removed and teeth being filed down. They may be chained or caged for hours a day, condemning them to a horribly deprived, sad, unnatural life.

And the people who come into contact with these animals -- these wild animals -- unwittingly put themselves at risk of injury. It could be the six-year-old girl in Michigan who thinks it is safe to pet the neighbor's macaque only to get bitten, or the friend of Travis's owner who is now enduring a facial transplant.

Born Free USA's exotic animal incidents online database tracks hundreds of wild animal attacks, including many by non-human primates. The list is much too long.

But it is not just about a direct attack, bite, mauling. Nonhuman primates also pose disease risks, including transmission of Ebola, tuberculosis and herpes-B.

Worth the risk? No way.

And what about the drain on communities when pet primates are no longer able to be kept by their owners? Amongst the 500 individuals at Born Free USA's Primate Sanctuary in Texas are many residents rescued from abusive captive situations which they endured as someone's "pet."

Of course, the problem of primate ownership is not exclusive to the U.S.

In the UK where I live, we face a similar and no less challenging situation, with a rampant illegal trade, an apparent increase in the availability of primates for sale as pets and recent deregulation of certain species.

The private keeping of primates as pets was reviewed under the UK Animal Welfare Act 2006, and a Code of Practice was produced. However, this Code serves only as a guide and is not legally binding; nor does it prohibit the keeping of any species of primates as pets.

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 regulates the private keeping of certain species of primates that have been deemed to be particularly dangerous to human health and safety in Great Britain. Primates of scheduled species require licensing and inspection, but it is widely acknowledged that there is considerable non-compliance and lack of enforcement of this legislation.

Too often the UK is seen to be leading on animal welfare issues. This time the US can show the way. Is it too much to hope that the emerging calls for action on this issue in the US could encourage the UK to follow suit?

Nonhuman primates are celebrated as our closest living relatives, but they are still wild animals. Whether acting out of instinct or intent, "pet" primates are capable of wreaking terrible havoc on human primates who pay the tragic price when things, inevitably, go wrong.