Contributed by JGI Canada blog contributor, Mallory.
The pet trade, legal or illegal, domestic or international, poses a serious hindrance to primate conservation efforts. Research has suggested a linear increase in the export of live primates over the past fifteen years, with China being the largest contributor. Thousands of live primates are exported illegally and legally every year for biomedical industries, entertainment businesses, and pet markets. Last year, Darwin, the Japanese macaque found wandering around an IKEA in Toronto, successfully focused the public’s attention on the issues surrounding the primate pet trade. Most recently, Mally, Justin Bieber’s pet capuchin monkey, also appears to have ended up in a precarious situation, presenting Bieber with an opportunity to make a profound intervention in this issue by telling others not to participate in the exotic trade of primates.There is a great deal of stakeholders in the pet trade, and no one person can be held responsible for the detainment of a primate as a pet. The trade is a product of the human tendency to anthropomorphize our closest living relatives by assuming that other primates can live in a human context. Certainly, many non-human primates look a lot like us, and we can sense their sentience by gazing into their eyes, but our primate relatives are not domesticated. Although some primates can become habituated to our presence, all non-human primates are still wild and too intelligent to be kept as pets.
When Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees use tools much like humans do, we had to redefine what “man” was, because up until that point, we believed that only humans could make, modify, and use tools. We felt compelled to examine the marvelously diverse creatures in the primate order, because we began to discover they were also very intelligent. When I heard that Bieber was keeping a 17-week old capuchin monkey named “Mally” as a pet, I wondered if he had ever learned that keeping a capuchin as a pet is quite different from keeping a dog or a cat. I wondered, does Justin Bieber know that capuchins are one of the only non-ape species we have ever documented using tools? Or that long-term tool use is a measurement of intelligence, and capuchins are considered to be the most intelligent New World monkey? Perhaps if he had been more informed about the species, he may not have considered keeping such an intelligent wild animal as a pet. I wondered if he knew that capuchins live in intricate social groups of ten to forty members or that they are arboreal, meaning that they locomote and spend their entire lives in the trees. When people become aware that primates are not simply our funny-looking furry friends, but rather, complex relatives of our human ancestors with brilliant biologies and behaviours, they are less likely to make the mistake of taking one in as a pet. It is our job as a society to make sure that every individual is aware of these issues.
On March 28, Bieber brought Mally with him on a long flight that departed from LA and arrived in Munich, where, sources say, Bieber could not provide the proper health certificate for Mally. German officials were then forced to confiscate the capuchin monkey. Mally is currently still in quarantine in a 10ft by 16ft sterilized room at the Munich Protection Centre. Bieber has had over a month to provide the proper paperwork for Mally, and customs spokesman Thomas Meister has stated that Mally will not be released until Bieber or someone with his power of attorney contacts officials directly. Although it is a possibility that Bieber has moved on without Mally, Mally is forced to remain in quarantine, where he will likely spend the next four months of his life without a single member of his kind, his mother, or a tree.
Hundreds of different animal species populate the exotic pet trade, but primates in particular have become increasingly popular, possibly because they so closely resemble ourselves. Besides the obvious physical dangers of raising a primate from infancy, such as their aggression at maturity, sharp canines, acute intelligence, and great strength, there are other dangers of purchasing a young primate and raising it in a human environment.
When any non-human primate is prematurely removed from its mother to be replaced by an improper surrogate, such as Justin Bieber, the emotional and physical cost is huge.
Mally likely went from clinging safely to his mother’s chest, to resisting the unfamiliar and forceful hand of a stranger, who would rip him from his mother’s chest. Justin Bieber, after acquiring Mally as a present for his birthday, would embrace the tiny capuchin for as long as he could, and then place him back into a cage. This cage would go from cargo container to cargo container, building to building, until eventually, more strangers would pull Mally out of the cage, spread him out on a steel table and investigate his paperwork, and then, hand him off to a “caretaker”. Unfortunately, this caretaker cannot console Mally the way his mother could have, and subsequently, Mally will likely be psychologically damaged and stress-prone forever.
Believe it or not, Mally is one of the lucky ones. Although a human is no replacement for a mother, this caretaker is likely familiar with capuchin behaviours and Mally’s emotional needs (which are similar to those of humans). If Bieber does not come back to claim Mally with the appropriate paperwork, Mally will likely enter into a primate facility after quarantine where he will be with his own kind. Those primates who are not so lucky often die shortly after being removed from their mother’s chest, or after being fed or housed incorrectly, or after being chained to a post or tree for the duration of its life.
Although the exotic pet trade is alluring, we must step back and allow ourselves to be skeptical and uncompromisingly critical about our impact on an animal’s life. We know that animals impact our lives in many positive ways, but this logic is one-sided, and we too, must recognize our role in the lives of animals. A great way to personally impact the primate trade is to raise awareness around primate conservation issues to inspire others to take action against the endangerment of primates.