Primates In Captivity

31st May 2010

Hundreds of baby orang-utans are captured and sold each year despite the  fact that such trade is illegal. They are favourite with zoos, circuses, films and advertising. In Taiwan's capital, Taipei, there is a greater density of orang-utans than in their native  Borneo and Sumatra. These are used as tourist attractions in discos and kept widely as pets. Once they turn into unruly teenagers they are abandoned in the streets. Taiwan is now trying to reverse the situation, but the numbers returned to the forest are only a small portion of those still being taken out. Baby chimpanzees too are commonly displayed in cages in hotels and restaurants in Egypt, and even in "developed" USA, Ivan, a 250 kg gorilla, was kept for 26 years in a concrete cell in a shopping mall. Gawked at by crowds, denied sunlight or fresh air, deprived of any stimulation or contact with his own species, until under the pressure of activists, in 1994, he was finally moved to a spacious new home. For the first time Ivan could venture outside, smell flowers, and join a gorilla family.

Animated, intelligent monkeys are not domestic pets but wild animals. Unlike dogs or cats, they have not evolved over thousands of years to live compatibly with humans. In the hands of owners who know little about their needs most don't survive for long. When they do, whatever the love lavished on the pet, it has suffered the pain of being torn from its mother for a life of isolation from its own kind and will be emotionally damaged, just like humans kept in solitary confinement. And no beating, electric prodding, food deprivation, drugging, or the surgically removal of teeth and nails, will ever turn a monkey or ape into a "civilized" human child.

Over the years, millions of primates have been captured for use in medical research in North America, Europe and Japan. During the 1950s, India alone used to export over 200,000 rhesus macaques every year. Most were used in the testing of vaccines against polio and other diseases, but many were used needlessly for dubious experiments. When India put a stop to it, the scientists turned to the long-tailed macaque of South-east Asia. Fewer than 150,000 chimpanzees still exist in western and central Africa. Yet there are some 2,000 captive chimpanzees in the United States. About 300 are in zoos and the remaining 1,700 in laboratories.

Fortunately the United States agreed to abide by an international treaty prohibiting the capture and importation of wild chimpanzees in 1973 and now rely on captive breeding, yet illegal capture continues.


The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reports that sophisticated non-animal research methods are more accurate, less expensive, and less time-consuming than traditional animal-based methods. When injected with the AIDS virus, the Chimpanzees do not develop the disease. Yet, despite the repeated failures of the various chimpanzee experiments, the National Institute of Health spent more than million in 1987 to fund  AIDS research on Chimpanzees, and an additional ,5 million was allocated for a Chimpanzee breeding program. Wouldn't our limited resources be better spent teaching humans how to avoid AIDS, rather than attempting to spread the disease to innocent primates? Primates are also used in painful cancer, hepatitis and psychological tests; as well as for research into artificial insemination, birth control methods, blood diseases, organ transplants, experimental surgery and cloning. Primates are highly active and socially orientated. When kept in isolation under such conditions they (understandably) become psychotic. Are these experiments necessary? No monkey- or ape-to-human heart transplant has yet been successful.


Luckily, besides the increasing difficulties of finding suitable wild primates, more stringent government regulations, the actions of animal protection societies, the decline of the pet trade, the more efficient use of laboratory animals and the elimination of primates from some areas of research, have contributed to significantly reducing the volume of the world's primate trade in the past 3 decades.