A dog is for life, not just for Christmas!

Posted on December 14, 2010

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In 1978 Clarissa Baldwin, chief executive officer of the charity, Dogs Trust, coined a phrase that many of you over the age of 30 will have grown up hearing – “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”.

Clarissa Baldwin

For those still wet behind the ears, this message was drummed into the great British public to think responsibly, if they were considering buying a pet as a gift for their little darlings at Christmas. It became a bit of a mantra in the 1980’s and that’s partly due to the number of puppies and dogs that were dumped annually at various animal shelters up and down the country post festive cheer.

I’ve grown up seeing fads for all kinds of exotic pets: pythons; tarantulas; terrapin turtles; parrots and more recently a worrying trend for primates.

The internet has a lot to answer for. Unfortunately one of the negative aspects of the web, is the ability for criminals to cash in on the lucrative trade in endangered animals and animal body parts. Last night, BBC Inside Out Yorkshire and Lincolnshire covered a story about people in the UK breeding and selling primates as pets.

Monkeys and apes are wild animals and should never be given to someone as a pet. They have not been genetically selected for domestication and even those bred in captivity are not suitable. It’s cruel to keep these animals in an alien environment far removed from their natural habitat and also dangerous for the owners, stupid enough to keep them.

capuchin monkey

As primates reach sexual maturity, they turn from submissive infants to dominant adults, that will look at strangers and even their beloved owners as a potential threat. This is how attacks happen.

While zoonoses – animal diseases that can transfer to humans – such as influenza are not serious, infection by the Herpes B virus; (which is carried by macaques without showing symptoms) Ebola and Monkeypox all have the potential to cause a public health epidemic which can be fatal to us.

marmoset

The demand for primates as pets globally means that wild populations also suffer. An entire group can be wiped out because of a ‘pre-order’ made on the internet. Don’t do it and for God sake do not advocate it! They may look cute, but they are certainly not a substitute for a companion or dare I say it, a ‘surrogate’ child.

The news programme looked at the common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) indigenous to parts of South America. These monkeys are small and usually weigh around 7-10 ounces, which makes them ideal targets for breeders because they can stuff quite a few of these monkeys into one cage.

Dr Caroline Ross, Primatologist at Roehampton University told me, “Marmosets can breed very fast; interestingly the females are able to ovulate while they are lactating, which increases the reproductive rate.

“They can give birth to twins, so potentially they can have up to four offspring in a year. Marmosets live in social groups of about eight or larger. Keeping a pair is not ideal, social grooming is a big part of their activity. The young are weaned at two months and in the wild would stay in a group until adulthood, around two years old.

“Keeping them in captivity means they are not going to have the varied diet they have in wild and they don’t eat in one sitting, they forage throughout the day while they travel. In a cage they’re not able to travel the same distances in their home range, which is usually about a kilometre.”

I was very surprised to learn from the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) that it is not illegal in the UK to keep primates as pets, even though these animals are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The current legislation in place is a voluntary code of practice. DEFRA says that the government does not encourage the keeping of primates as pets in the UK.

But critics of this current UK law says it’s a loophole that now needs to be closed if we are to safeguard all primates from the pet trade.

Director of programmes for the charity Care for the Wild International (CWI), Mark Jones, said: “Primates are highly intelligent and socially complex animals, and their needs can rarely if ever be met when they are kept in private hands.

“The government’s code of practice is to be welcomed as a recognition of the problems faced by pet primates. However, the code is necessarily generic and lacks regulatory teeth.”

A number of EU countries, such as Italy, Denmark, The Netherlands and Germany, have taken steps to restrict people keeping primates as pets. Surely it’s time for the UK, considered by some, as one of the most influential member countries within the EU, to follow suit?

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) published a report in 2005 called Born to be Wild. The exact number of primates kept and sold in the UK is still unknown, although some experts believe it be in the thousands. One monkey alone can fetch anything from £800 to £8,000 –  so is it any wonder it’s a thriving trade?

According to IFAW’s report, another serious problem for the pet primate market is that few veterinary surgeons have the specialised knowledge necessary to advise owners on the care of pet primates, or to treat them themselves. Many vets may refuse to treat primates because of the risk of disease.

So the next time you hear someone saying: “oh how cute, I want a monkey.” Do me a favour and please educate them!

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