Although the UK is typically considered to be a nation of animal lovers, our legislation sometimes falls behind. A key example of this is the primate pet trade.

Primates are wild animals that should never be kept as pets, but the demand for these exotic animals still exists, and may even be increasing due to the effect of the internet.

A quick look online and it’s possible to find primates available to purchase right here in the UK, making their trade even easier. Social media platforms are rife with cute videos that seem to normalise or even glorify the ownership of such an animal, driving demand further. Baby primates in particular have become internet stars, and are being sold at a premium.

But it's important to remember that primates are wild animals with special needs (detailed here by the RSPCA) that differ to those of domestic animals. They are intelligent animals with complex physical, emotional and social requirements that can’t be met in a domestic environment. What’s more, they can become aggressive and dangerous when they reach maturity, and have been known to attack their owners.

VOLGOGRAD, RUSSIA - JANUARY 24, 2020: A detained spot-nosed monkey is quarantined at an animal disease control centre in the city of Volgograd; on 23 January 2020, traffic police officers discovered two cages containing the monkey and a lion cub on stopping a car in Novonikolayevsky District, Volgograd Region; the driver, a Dagestan-born 24-year old man, had no pet passports for the animals; the police seized the animals and handed them over to officials of Russia's Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor). Dmitry Rogulin/TASS (Photo by Dmitry RogulinTASS via Getty Images)
A detained spot-nosed monkey quarantined at an animal disease control centre after being recovered from a car, along with a lion cub, in the Volgograd Region of Russia. © Dmitry Rogulin/TASS/Getty.

Yes, currently, it is still perfectly legal to walk into a pet shop to buy a monkey (85 species can legally be bought) as easily as one might buy a goldfish. Yet, thankfully, this is about to change, thanks to a new Animal Welfare Bill that is making its way through parliament.

Though not an outright ban, the new legislation is set to make private ownership of primates much more difficult and highly regulated, by requiring anyone who wishes to sell or own one to have a licence. Once these regulations come into force – likely by 2024 – breaches will be subject to heavy fines.

Statistics reveal the shocking reality for UK pet primates

  • There are 4,000 to 5,000 pet primates in the UK, according to estimates from the RSPCA.
  • 14 species of primate have been rescued from the UK pet trade. This includes marmosets, lemurs, and even a chimpanzee.
  • 60% of cases investigated by the RSPCA involve primates kept in social isolation.
  • 116 primates have been rescued by Monkey World from the UK pet trade since 1989.
  • 50 is the average number of calls the RSPCA gets a year from people concerned about the welfare of a pet primate.
  • 85 species can currently be kept legally in the UK without a licence.
  • Just 5-15% of people who should have a Dangerous Wild Animals Act licence actually do.
  • £2,000 is the approximate cost of a marmoset.
  • 27cm2 is the smallest size of cage found holding a pet primate, as reported by RSPCA field staff.

Once the bill becomes law, there should no longer be such unrestricted trade. All privately kept primates will need to be kept to ‘zoo-level standards’ and only by licensed individuals.

At the time of writing, the bill is still meandering through parliament. Yet we can now entertain hope that an embarrassing chapter in our country’s history will finally be closed. A chapter in which some of our closest living relatives suffered neglect, illness and solitary confinement without adequate reprisals.

Adolescent male chimpanzee named 'Fundi' aged 13 in Gombe National Park
Primates such as this young chimpanzee have complex social needs. © Fiona Rogers/Getty

Why are monkeys hard to keep?

Monkeys are intelligent animals with complex needs, but they are often bought and sold without scrutiny, often by people with little idea of how to care for them.

Unlike cats and dogs, monkeys and apes have not been domesticated. The process of domestication — taming an animal to live comfortably with humans through selective breeding — takes thousands of years, and domestic animals are often very different to their wild counterparts. Though they may be captive bred, pet primates are still wild animals, with all the unsuitable and dangerous behaviours that come with it.

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A black and white lemur amongst branches and foliage.

Primates are also uniquely social, intelligent animals, with needs and desires that cannot be satisfied in a domestic setting. They require specialist diets, inside and outside enclosures, the companionship of their own kind and niche wildlife vet care. Most domestic vets do not know how to care for primates, so the implications of a life in captivity therefore make for bleak reading.

Many primates that have been rescued by primate rescue centre Monkey World have arrived with psychological or physical issues, including metabolic bone disease due to an incorrect diet and environment, muscle wastage, organ failure, dentition problems, broken bones, self-injurious behaviours, agoraphobia and aggression.

How to report a primate in distress

If you see a primate in need, you can report it to Monkey World who will investigate and take further action if necessary. The more detail you can give, including – where possible – a photograph, the better. You can find out more at the link below.

Report a primate in need

Main image: Japanese macaque monkey © Getty


Leoma WilliamsAnimal behavior researcher and science writer

Leoma Williams is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and writes periodically for both the website and print magazine