Why Chimpanzees Are NOT Pets

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | November 13, 2009 10:49 am

In February, 55-year-old Charla Nash made headlines around the world when she was brutally attacked by a friend’s 200-pound pet chimpanzee. She decided to reveal her disfigured face on Oprah this week and I am posting a clip* because I have extremely strong emotions concerning this particular issue–foremost as a result of my conservation biology background and also due to my friendship with science writer Vanessa Woods and her husband, evolutionary anthropologist Dr. Brian Hare. Together they study sanctuary orphans in Congo and often mothers have been killed so the babies can be sold as pets.

Most people still do not seem to understand the gravity of this issue. After watching, make sure to read Brian’s original guest contribution on the science behind why chimpanzees are not pets below the fold.

(A warning to readers of graphic content.)

The Science Behind Why Chimpanzees Are Not Pets
by Brian Hare, Evolutionary Anthropologist at Duke University

ngamba b 074Last 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: community.hsus.org/campaign/FED_2009_primates_pets3

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: community.hsus.org/campaign/FED_2009_primates_pets3.

Organizations working to help orphan chimpanzees:



(originally published March 4th, 2009)


Comments (5)

  1. Sorbet

    You would enjoy this new book by Sylvia Earle.

    The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One

  2. GW

    I’m continually boggled by the idea of a person “owning” a chimp as a “pet”.
    In my mind chimpanzees are sentient beings with language and culture and “owning” one might as well be likened to “owning” a slave.

    As far as I’m concerned this notion holds true for any great apes, elephants, dolphins and larger parrots (ie macaws and grey parrots).

    I’m fine with the idea of humans being “care-givers” to such an animal – those injured, (accidentally) orphaned and/or otherwise incapable to living on their own in the wild – where they should be to begin with.

    People really need to realize that such animals are not humans and therefore don’t think and act like them, but neither are they cute little cuddly creatures to be forever treated and thought of as helpless babies to be dressed up and trained to do tricks.

  3. Liz

    I agree – chimps are NOT pets. I had occasion to see just how strong they are at a ranch in California where two chimps were living. Both were in “caregiver” situations having come from “pet” homes. The older one spent much time up a tree near the barn but when we approached, it ran down and with one hand neatly plucked a fresh, full length 2 x 4 right off the fence it was nailed to and began brandishing it and screaming. We were not harmed but the power and aggression were breathtaking. The younger one had been taught to use wrenches and hammers for some tv or movie appearance and you don’t want to know what the ranch truck looked like after this “cute” little guy was done with it.

  4. Julie

    Wow, the traumatic event that results in a baby chimpanzee being ‘adoptable’ would be enough to create a serial killer out of a child…
    Humans have the capacity to think, empathize and to to calculate risk… why don’t we?

  5. Gus Snarp

    This is so absurd, why on earth is this legal? In all honesty we should not allow any non-domesticated animals as pets, not just primates. And I will probably anger some people in that I include all exotic animals, rodents, lizards, birds, pretty much anything other than cats and dogs are not and should not be allowed to be pets, or to be imported for any purpose other than legitimate scientific ones.

    I have always said that the problem with people who have primates as pets is that they are violating the cardinal rule of pets: no one should have a pet that is smarter than they are.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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 srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


See More

Collapse bottom bar