Guest post by Brian Hare, Evolutionary Anthropologist at Duke University
Last 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
Chimp’s owner calls vicious mauling ‘freak thing’
STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — The owner of a 200-pound chimpanzee that viciously mauled a Stamford woman calls the incident “a freak thing,” but says her pet was not a “horrible” animal.
Sandra Herold told NBC’s “Today Show” in an interview aired Wednesday that Travis, her 14-year-old chimpanzee, was like a son to her.
Herold tried to save her friend by stabbing the chimp with a butcher knife and bludgeoning it with a shovel.
I have extremely strong emotions concerning this particular issue… in part because of my conservation biology background, but more recently, from my friendship with science writer Vanessa Woods and her husband, evolutionary anthropologist Dr. Brian Hare. The very reason they study sanctuary orphans is because often mothers have been killed so the babies can be sold to people who want them as pets. Vanessa explained the problems with this last year at her terrific blog Bonobo Handshake, reposted here:
#1 Chimpanzees are wild animals. Animals that make good PETS like dogs
and cats, have been domesticated for [thousands] of years. There has been
selection on them against agression, which is why a dog, unlike a wolf,
will not automatically tear you to pieces. Anyone who has a pet
chimpanzee for long enough will eventually no longer be able to control
them and will either get a body part bitten off or will have to use
extreme force to control them. Chimps live to be 50 years old and grow
almost as big as a human male. They have extremely powerful muscles and
are 5-10 stronger than a heavy weight boxer.
This is the size of a full grown adult next to the baby sized chimps you see in commercials and on TV
Because of this aggressive temperament people who sell these animals as
pets must do so when they are adorable and harmless infants. Their
customers do not know the level of aggression these animals are capable
of or there strength.
#3: Even accredited zoos
and universities struggle to pay the expenses required to house wild
chimps humanely and safely. The vast majority of chimp owners do not
have the resources to assure the welfare of their wild pet and the
safety of their neighbors.
primates potentially carry diseases deadly to humans including herpes
B, yellow fever, monkeypox, Ebola, Marburg, SIV, and tuberculosis.
politicians in these countries point to the lack of laws in the United
States and ask why someone in North Carolina can have a pet monkey or
tiger but a Congolese or Brazilian cannot. My hope is that we will set
an example for the world for the humane treatment of wild animals –
their very survival depends upon it.
And finally and most
importantly, the pet trade is an international problem that threaten
many species with extinction. Conservationists are trying to stop this
trade in developing countries where people kill endangered wild animals
to sell as pets at home and abroad. But politicians in these countries
point to the lack of laws in the United States and ask why is it wrong
and illegal for them to have a chimpanzee as a pet, and if chimpanzees
are an endangered animal that should be conserved and protected,
wanyone in the USA can order one over the internet with a credit card?
We don’t buy and sell people any more. Since chimps and bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA, don’t they deserve the same respect?