The Science Behind Why Chimpanzees Are Not Pets

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 4, 2009 11:00 am

Guest post by Brian Hare, Evolutionary Anthropologist at Duke University

ngamba b 074.jpgLast 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 incidence 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 question 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 in the same situation. 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 wolves instead. By living together with us for thousands of years domesticated animals have been bred to live together with humans relatively harmoniously.

Summary: Domestication is the process of breeding out aggression

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 150-220 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 and prefer peace they can also be extremely violent – sometimes leading to murder.

Summary: Wild chimpanzees kill each other…it is in their nature.

Why do people think chimps 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 (~$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. Currently, there are over 700 pet chimpanzees in US homes of unknown origin (i.e. they may be smuggled from Africa). Many of these chimp 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.

Summary: 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 or Europe 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 many loop holes exist in almost every
state. Chances are, your neighbor can legally own a pet chimpanzee.

Summary: 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 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. 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?

Summary: U.S. Pet Chimpanzees seem hypocritical to Africans who know they need protection

You can help. Send a letter to you senators urging them to support the Captive Primate Safety Act. Go to:

Links items related to the Pet Chimpanzee Issue

News Reports:

Articles/ Newspaper coverage:

Legislation Under Consideration:
Find information on the
Human Society’s website about the Captive Primate Safety Act and from
which you can send a letter to you senators urging them to support the
legislation. Go to:


Comments (9)

  1. frog

    Are human beings a domesticated species? What would be the genetic traits of domesticated species — from stress responses to neural crest migration? Do humans then show those traits, or not?

  2. Ahcuah

    All of the discussion I’ve seen on this relates to chimpanzees. What about bonobos?

    Sure, they’re still wild; sure, we shouldn’t keep them and pretend they can be pets. But doesn’t their social structure suggest that they might be less dangerous? (Or are they also as violent in other ways?)

    Or, if you had one, would you have to make sure to have sex with it often to keep it socialized? đŸ™‚

  3. BJN

    I don’t understand the fixation on making this point repeatedly. Flogging a dead chimp it seems to me. Yes, chimps aren’t good pets. It’s not as if there’s a big cultural shift to keeping chimps or other primates as pets. Hollywood fantasies include talking mice and killer rabbits, so I’m not too concerned that the portrayal of comic chimps in movies has created a mythology that encourages any reasonable citizen to adopt a chimp as a pet. It has to be difficult and expensive for private citizens to find and obtain a primate pet and I’m sure that along the way people learn why it’s difficult and expensive.

    In the original post I objected to the thoughtless portrayal of wolves as inherently dangerous and deadly. They’re not good pets for the reasons stated, but that qualifier wasn’t part of the post. Wolves in the wild are nearly never aggressive toward humans, and exaggeration of their behavior is a big problem in efforts to save the species and reintroduce wolves into the wild.

    I also think that chimpanzee violence in nature (or what passes for a natural habitat these days) is real but hardly exceptional considering the behavior of the most deadly primate on the planet.

  4. The plot of “Relatedness” vs “Ease of Domestication” clearly seems to be a scatter plot. It’s pretty clear from the fact that I kept rather unrelated hydra in a jar by my bedside for a long time.

  5. I worked in a zoo. I don’t believe any wild species should be kept as a pet. But please, please, please, don’t fall under the influence of HSUS. They want to end all interactions between humans and animals and bring about the extinction of all domestic species. If we’re crazy enough to want to keep wild animals as pets when we can choose a domestic animal instead, what will be the consequences of eliminating all the tame dogs and cats? I shudder to think.

  6. SLC

    Re Ahcuah

    What do they say, Chimpanzees make war, bonobos make love.

  7. “please, please, don’t fall under the influence of HSUS. They want to end all interactions between humans and animals and bring about the extinction of all domestic species.”



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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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