The Darwin saga: Macaques as pets

If you're in Toronto (or probably anywhere in Canada), you've probably heard a lot about Darwin, also known as the "Ikea Monkey". Darwin is a seven-month-old rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) that was found wandering around an Ikea parking lot on December 9 in a designer winter coat. He was seized by Toronto Animal Services since non-human primates aren't legal pets in Toronto, and the owner has been fighting to get him back ever since. She has organized protests. She's filed lawsuits. She's planning on moving to a neighbouring region that currently does not prohibit non-human primates as pets. Of course, not wanting to be known as the home for wayward monkeys and their wayward owners, that very region is in the process of enacting a bylaw banning such pets. Darwin's owner is trying to get him back and move ASAP because the bylaw will not apply to existing pets already living in the region when it comes into effect.

For this post, I'll stay away from some of the stranger aspects of this fight and the exotic pet issue in general, and address one basic question: are rhesus macaques good pets?

That one's easy. No.

Why? There are a variety of reasons.

Number one on the list is Cercopithecine herpesvirus (also known as herpes B, herpesvirus simiae or simply B-virus). This is the macaque version of the herpesvirus that causes cold sores in people. It's very common in macaques, and the vast majority of captive macaques are infected. A problem with herpesviruses is that they hang around for life, being shed intermittently and unpredictably. While this virus doesn't cause a major problem in the monkeys, it can cause fatal encephalitis (brain swelling) in people, most commonly after being transmitted by a monkey bite.

Other infectious diseases are also of concern. Bites are a major issue, both from the trauma associated with them and bite infections from the range of bacteria present in the animal's mouth.

Other injuries can be a problem too. While macaques aren't very big, they're strong and they can be aggressive. Injuries to people can happen from aggressive behaviour or over-exuberant play.

The animal welfare aspect can't be ignored either. These animals have complex care requirements. You can't just lock them in a room, toss in some monkey chow every once in a while, and take off for the weekend leaving the neighbour's kid in charge. These animals need a proper diet and care, and that's not something everyone provide. Stress-associated health and behavioural problems are quite common in pet macaques. 

The lifespan of these monkeys also needs to be considered. If properly cared for, they can live up to 25 years. That's a long time to deal with a high maintenance animal. What happens if the owner gets sick or dies, moves somewhere that the animal's not allowed, or for whatever reason can't take care of it anymore? That's true for all pets, but the longer the lifespan, the greater the chance of one of these things happening, and harder it is to get someone to take the animal. It's not too hard for someone to adopt Aunt Edna's 15-year-old cat that rarely leaves the couch and isn't going to be around that long. It's different with a young macaque that's going to live many years and require intensive effort for that entire time.

Those are among the reasons that PetWatch (a program of EcoHealth Alliance) ranks macaques as "Worst choice pet."

Similarly, a paper co-authored by people from CDC (Ostrowski et al, Emerging Infectious Diseases 1998) states clearly "The extremely high prevalence of B-virus along with their behavioral characteristics make the macaque species unsuitable as pets."

Darwin needs to go to a good sanctuary or zoo, where he can be a monkey, interact with other monkeys, and have a happy, healthy and species-appropriate lifestyle.

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