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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Put an End to Dangerous Monkey Business

Congress returns to Washington today after winter recess, and one of the issues on the agenda will be the trade in pet primates.  Every month that goes by, the need becomes more urgent: Just before the holidays, a convenience store clerk was attacked and bitten by a customer’s pet monkey in North Carolina.  Two months earlier in Missouri, a pet monkey bit two children in a public park.  In both cases, the monkeys’ owners ran off.

Chimpanzee Unfortunately, such incidents are not uncommon as “pet” primates have become a reckless and dangerous fad in America. It’s estimated that there are 15,000 nonhuman primates—chimps, macaque monkeys, and others—in captivity in the U.S. They are often purchased as infants, readily available for sale on a number of Internet sites.

Cute baby monkeys become aggressive as they grow older, and these animals can be highly dangerous. The average pet owner quickly learns that he or she cannot provide the appropriate housing, veterinary care, or diet that primates require. At least a hundred people have been injured by captive primates in the last decade—29 of them children.

Primates are highly intelligent and social animals who live long lives. They have complex social and psychological needs, but are often kept confined alone in cages. In order to render the animals less dangerous, owners often mutilate them by removing their teeth.

The threat to public safety is perhaps eclipsed by the public health time bomb just waiting to explode. Primates can spread dangerous diseases such as monkey pox, tuberculosis, and herpes-b. Nearly every macaque monkey in captivity carries the deadly herpes-b virus.

Macaque Recognizing the serious risks, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and David Vitter (R-La.) and Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced the Captive Primate Safety Act, S. 1498 and H.R. 2964. The bill will ban the interstate commerce in apes, monkeys, lemurs, marmosets, and other nonhuman primates for the pet trade. A number of states and communities already prohibit private ownership of primates as pets, but the patchwork of local laws and the interstate nature of the primate pet trade call out for a federal response.

The Senate bill passed the Environment and Public Works Committee in July, and has been awaiting further action.  Identical legislation passed the Senate unanimously in 2006, and should be a no-brainer this time around.  But some lawmakers have suggested that the new law will cost additional funds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enforce it.  In reality, federal agencies are not going to put additional staff at the borders to check for monkeys.  Fish and Wildlife agents don’t get line items for enforcement of specific laws, but rather a pot of enforcement money to use at their discretion.  There’s no obligation for the agency to spend anything, but the law would provide an additional tool for law enforcement agents if they find violators who are selling animals across state lines, and it would discourage the sale and transport of dangerous wildlife.

The Captive Primate Safety Act is similar to a bill that Congress passed unanimously in 2003, prohibiting the interstate commerce in tigers, lions, and other dangerous big cats for the pet trade. Like the big cats bill, the primate bill will crack down on the exotic pet industry but will have no impact on zoos, medical research, or other federally licensed facilities. The legislation has been endorsed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Jane Goodall Institute, and the major animal protection groups.

We need to end this dangerous monkey business. Primates belong in the wild, not in our parks and convenience stores. For our own health and safety—as well as the animals’—Congress should act swiftly and pass the Captive Primate Safety Act before the next child is mauled by a chimp.

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