I just finished reading this story on CNN about a chimpanzee attacking and seriously injuring a friend of his owner. It’s so sad, for the victim, for Travis who is now dead, and for the owner who, in desperation, stabbed the pet she loved as a child.
I have never quite understood the appeal of primates as pets. The overwhelming memory I have from my time studying primate medicine is that of fear- they can MESS YOU UP. Don’t get me wrong- I think primates are amazing and astounding creatures. Their capacity and abilities never cease to astound me. I was fortunate enough to see Jane Goodall give a talk last year about her research, and her love of the chimpanzees was astounding. It made me want to get on a plane to Africa and set up shop in the jungle right then and there.
But Jane doesn’t keep pet chimps, does she? Or put them in laboratories to research on them? She appreciates them for their grace and intelligence as observed in their natural habitat. Moreso than other animals, primates have enough intelligence to understand and appreciate their situation in captivity, research, or as pets, and I think across the board they know that something is wrong.
About two weeks into my primate medicine rotation in school, I was talking to a resident about how interesting his work was, just trying to engage him. He kind of scoffed. “I’m getting out at the end of the year,” he said. “I can’t take it. They all go crazy.” And while I am the first to admit I am not an expert in lab animal medicine, it wasn’t very hard to appreciate the idea that while the primates in the colony setting were doing OK, those in the medical wards, separated into cages like a mini-Oz, were not. It was not pleasant. They were unhappy. They sat in their wards with nothing to do, holding little mirrors they could use to look at each other, playing with “enrichment” items here and there before going back to repetitive behaviors. When you approached the ward and looked in the door window, you’d see a row of little humanoid-looking hands extend mirrors out the cages to see who was there. They learned to recognize the vets, and since we were the ones doing things like giving shots, the reaction was less than pleasant. It never ceased to be disconcerting.
When you come face to face with a primate, there is a different connection than when you similarly encounter another kind of animal. The intelligence, the thought process, is evident. You see it in the gorilla who sighs at the zoo when some stupid kid is making faces and noises, right before he decides to pay him back by exhibiting some form of inappropriate behavior in front of the kid’s mom. You see it in the mother rhesus macaque who stares in terror when you come to sedate her so you can dress her wound; even worse so to see it in the baby who clings to her limp form, awake and terrified. You see it in the chimpanzee who sits in a cage resignedly waiting for the next phase of the stroke study. And while others obviously see something different, I see it in the chimp sitting on TV in a beanie and overalls selling me a soda.
I’m sure there are some people who enjoy a lifelong relationship with their pet primate, people with incredible devotion and understanding of the needs, but more often than not the stories we hear are these, the ones with the sad endings. It pains me to see commercials with “cutesy” primates; to see such a glorious animal demeaned in such as base way, to sell a product. Use a pug in a tutu. Just as cutesy and you know the pug lives for that kind of thing.