Inside the Exotic Pet Trade
An Animal Rights Article from


Primarily Primates
March 2018

The illegal trade in wildlife is second only to that of drugs in the United States...There is no stigma attached to being an animal smuggler. If you get caught illegally transporting animals on a first offense, it’s possible you won’t even do jail time. You can’t say the same for running drugs.

rescued chimp

To get an idea of the scope of the illegal exotic pet trade, consider this: The illegal trade in wildlife is second only to that of drugs in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). A former USFWS chief of law enforcement told Animal Issues Magazine, published by the Born Free Foundation:

“There is no stigma attached to being an animal smuggler. If you get caught illegally transporting animals on a first offense, it’s possible you won’t even do jail time. You can’t say the same for running drugs.”

The reason why Primarily Primates exists today is a result of the pet trade in squirrel monkeys.

If you read comic books back in the 70s, you may remember seeing an ad at the back of the comic book that sold squirrel monkeys as pets for $19.99. The market must have been insane with thousands of these little common yellow squirrel monkeys dying in pet homes, in transition from the wild, etc…

The founders of Primarily Primates were actually approached by a zoo that needed to place a couple of squirrel monkeys they rescued from a pet home. These particular squirrel monkeys just could not be integrated into the main social troupe of squirrel monkeys at the zoo.

When the zoo officials told the founders that they were trying to place these monkeys as a last ditch effort to save them before the zoo killed them, the founders of the soon to be Primarily Primates helped the two little squirrel monkeys…and helped create a primate rescue movement.

In the United States, keeping primates as pets has taken on a new dimension with the phenomenon of monkeys being treated as “surrogate children,” according to the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition CWAPC. Many childless people will acquire primates as babies only to discover that they cannot care for, or control, a full-grown animal.

And the internet has only compounded the program. With the click of a mouse, people can purchase any kind of animal. At a website called, a week-old male capuchin is listed at $7,800; a squirrel monkey is listed at $9,000 and a java macaque sells for $4,000.

Approximately 60 percent of the animals at Primarily Primates are discarded pets. Typically the animal starts to bite and become aggressive, or picks up a nervous habit, like self-harming or feverishly pacing in the cage, or screaming. Non-human primates are most often abandoned by their owners between the ages of two and eight (depending on the species), after they have started maturing, and sometimes after their owners have had their teeth removed in an effort to restrict their assertive personalities.

While U.S. federal quarantine regulations forbid importing non-human primates as pets, there are no federal laws in the U.S. banning primate ownership or exotic animal ownership in general. Fourteen states ban private possession of exotic animals, seven states have a partial ban and 15 require a license or permit.

The illegal global trade in exotic animals is estimated to be worth more than 10 billion dollars a year, according to the CWAPC. Many animals are taken from their natural environments to supply the pet trade. It is estimated that 90 percent of wild animals kept as pets are dead within the first two years of captivity.

The Center for Disease Control reported in 2007 in its Emergency Infectious Disease Journal that worldwide, an estimated 40,000 primates, four million birds, 640,000 reptiles, and 350 million tropical fish are traded live each year.

Joey’s story

In March 2010, we received a call from a Pennsylvania couple about to leave the country. They hoped to place their 7-year-old capuchin monkey at a sanctuary. Previously sold to someone who knew nothing of the care a monkey needs, when the Pennsylvania family acquired Joey, he could not move well or be touched without screaming in pain, but eventually his condition improved. Our first priority was to introduce Joey to Honey, a black and white capuchin age 22. Like Joey, Honey was a pet and for 17 years couldn’t socialize. But that changed when Honey met Joey. Honey immediately started grooming Joey and he returned the gesture. Joey picked up on Honey’s food choices and began to explore new foods. Best friends, Honey and Joey rarely leave each other’s sides.

Jordan’s story

Until he turned one year old, Jordan, a ring-tailed lemur, lived with a 20-year-old female whose grandfather purchased him in Helotes, Texas, as a birthday present for her. While she worked her boyfriend took care of Jordan, but Jordan craved the attention of his owner who fed him treats like Tootsie Roll pops. One day after his owner returned home from work, Jordan bit her boyfriend, who then had to get stitches to close the wound. That’s when Jordan’s owner brought him to Primarily Primates. Today Jordan has a reputation at the sanctuary for being especially charming. He resides in a habitat close to the main office of the sanctuary with a female lemur.

Burt’s story

Five-year old Burt, a rhesus macaque, arrived at PPI in May of 2012 from a skilled Washington primate rescue group. He was kept as a pet illegally in Oregon before he was confiscated. He was addicted to candy, as are many nonhuman primates in private homes who are often fed junk food. But today Burt no longer resists meals of bananas, mangoes, grapes, apples and strawberries.

Lennie’s story

Originally purchased as a pet when he was a baby, Lennie, an African patas guenon, lived with a family for four years, before they relegated him to a small cage in the basement when he matured and became difficult and aggressive. To make matters worse, they decided to move to another state where private possession of monkeys was prohibited. He was surrendered to a zoo and workers there called PPI in October of 2013. He enjoys his grass-bottomed habitat where he runs and hides at whim.

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