Dr. Melissa Seaboch | Uncovering America’s Primate Pet Trade
Pets are loved and valued members of many households across America. Unfortunately, some owners opt to keep primates as pets – and this is not a good choice for either the primate or the owner. Dr. Melissa Seaboch and Sydney Cahoon of Salt Lake Community College in the USA are working to better understand the primate pet trade in the USA.
Primates: An Unsuitable Attachment
Pets offer us companionship and fun, and bring tangible benefits to our mental and physical health. In the USA, one-third of households include pets and while for many, dogs and cats are the most popular choice, some pet owners choose primates.
There is an overwhelming consensus from scientists and veterinarians that primates, our closest living relatives, are an inappropriate choice. For a start, many owners lack sufficient knowledge about how to properly care for primates, leading to welfare concerns surrounding nutritional deficiencies, injuries, and behavioural disorders. Primates are naturally aggressive, and thus, injuries to owners are not uncommon. Primates can also carry diseases such as rabies and salmonella which can be easily transmitted to humans.
A Scarcity of Research
The vast majority of research into the primate pet trade has taken place in, or close to, the countries which form the natural habitat of primates, such as the study of pet lemurs in Madagascar (where it is illegal to keep them as pets) as undertaken by Dr. Melissa Seaboch and collaborators.
In contrast, very little research has focused on the extent of the primate pet trade in the USA, or its regulation, and Dr. Seaboch was driven to find out more about the true scope of the problem. Working with former student Sydney Cahoon, she undertook a systematic study of six publicly available online exotic pet-trade websites in the USA. Five of the six websites had been in existence for over ten years, implying a well-established basis for trading.
Over one year (from June 2019 to June 2020), the researchers visited each website twice a month. For each advertisement, they noted the date the advertisement was posted, common name of the primate (e.g., marmoset, capuchin), sex, age, location, and price. The researchers also took care to verify, as far as possible, that each advertisement related to a unique and specific primate for sale, to avoid inadvertently overinflating the numbers recorded.
The Extent of the Problem
Over the study duration of one year, the researchers found 551 pet primates for sale. The most common were marmosets, followed by lemurs, capuchins and squirrel monkeys. Where sex was stated, the majority were males and most (almost 80%) were aged less than 1 year old.
Primates were found for sale across 22 states. Florida had the highest number, followed by Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, and North Carolina. The prices of each primate varied hugely, ranging from $500 for a capuchin or marmoset to $15,000 for a spider monkey. Perhaps surprisingly, the price was not dictated by size of the primates, with the one baboon and one mandrill identified for sale being marketed at close to the average price of the whole sample.
As only six websites were studied, these figures undoubtedly underestimate the true scale of the problem. The authors note that primates can be found for sale through a multitude of different avenues and vendors, including private and commercial breeders, auctions, social media posts and pet stores.
Why Are Pet Primates So Popular?
Despite the convincing evidence that primates do not make good pets and that humans do not make good keepers of them, the ongoing popularity of primates as pets is clear. Dr. Seaboch points to several possible drivers of this.
The media is a powerful influence on consumer decision-making, and the choice of pet is no exception. Sales of green iguanas increased after the release of the Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park, and after the release of Finding Nemo, sales of clownfish rocketed. Primates have been popularly featured in films for decades, and capuchins are regular Hollywood stars. Thus, perhaps unsurprisingly, capuchins were the third most common primate found for sale in this research. No pet chimpanzees were found for sale, most likely attributable to private ownership being made illegal in 2015. Previous research has shown that viewing primates such as capuchins in human environments increases our desire to own such pets, but as pet owners were not studied in the current research, further conclusions regarding the influence of media on the pet trade are limited.
Another potential factor is that owners of pet primates may typically underestimate the time, effort and knowledge required to provide appropriate care, meaning they are unable to make an informed or sensible decision about the suitability of a primate as a pet. They may also be compelled by the notion of primates as ‘fashionable’ or status symbols and eager to follow the example of celebrities such as Justin Bieber (who owned a pet capuchin) and other celebrities, bloggers, ‘influencers’ and so on, who have posed with primates on social media.
Marmosets were the most common type of primate for sale. Across different types of pets, there is an assumption that smaller animals are easier to care for and they also hold a particular value in terms of ‘cuteness’. For these reasons, Dr. Seaboch notes that smaller primates, such as marmosets, may be preferred by buyers. From a seller’s perspective, the comparatively high reproduction rate of marmosets maximises their potential for income generation. As with other types of pets, younger animals are often preferred by buyers over their older counterparts, as also evidenced in the current study.
Impact of the Pet Trade on Wild Primates
Dr. Seaboch believes that the pet primates she found for sale were bred specifically for this purpose and not taken directly from the wild. However, as noted above, seeing primates outside of their natural habitats, such as in captivity or on TV, increases the desire of people to have one of their own. This increases the illegal trapping of primates in the wild and also leads to a mistaken belief that many primates are not endangered, and thus, conservation efforts do not receive the support or recognition that they require.
Reducing Pet Primate Ownership
Primate pet ownership in the USA will undoubtedly continue to expand if steps are not taken to reduce it. One approach is to better educate potential primate owners on the negative consequences, such as disease transmission. Tax burdens have proven successful in changing human behaviour in other domains (e.g., reducing smoking by increasing tax on tobacco). But as primates are expensive anyway, it is unlikely this would be an effective deterrent and may even increase their attractiveness as status symbols. Federal regulation, such as the requirement for owners to hold permits may be more effective, if the trade is not to be banned outright. Dr. Seaboch argues that to reduce the pet primate trade, the critical next step is to better understand the reasons why people want pet primates in the first place.
MEET THE RESEARCHER
Professor Melissa S. Seaboch
Salt Lake Community College
Salt Lake City, UT
Dr. Melissa Schaefer Seaboch earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Arizona State University in 2011, with an emphasis in Primatology. She is a Professor and Department Chair at Salt Lake Community College. She has conducted research on psychological well-being, growth and development, socioecology, evolution, and conservation of several species of captive, wild, and fossil nonhuman primates, including chimpanzees, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchin monkeys, galagos, and lemurs. Most recently she investigated the pet trade of lemurs in Madagascar with Dr. Kim Reuter. She has published extensively in her field with a particular focus on the primate pet trade. Her dedicated work provides convincing evidence in support of banning the primate pet trade.
Sydney N. Cahoon, A.A. (Salt Lake Community College), B.A. (University of Utah)
MS Seaboch, SN Cahoon, Pet primates for sale in the United States, PloS One, 16(9), e0256552. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0256552
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