The House of Representatives voted Tuesday to ban the interstate trade of apes and monkeys, in response to last week’s pet-chimpanzee attack in Connecticut. A congressional committee estimated there are 15,000 privately owned, nonhuman primates in the United States. “Images of ‘Curious George’ and ‘Koko’ may lead us to believe that these creatures are cuddly and harmless,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, “but last week’s tragedy and other similar attacks stand as evidence that this is not the case.” In an “Explainer” column first published in 2005, Daniel Engber looked into the business of selling monkeys over the Internet.
A police SWAT team in Mesa, Ariz., has applied for $100,000 from the federal government to buy a capuchin monkey and train it to perform law enforcement duties. Until now, monkeys have only been on the other side of the law, but officers say a police monkey could search buildings, find bodies, and gather information with a video camera and two-way radio. The officer who wrote the application says the monkey itself would cost $15,000, with the rest of the grant going toward equipment and upkeep. Are monkeys really that expensive?
Not usually. Capuchin monkeys—the kind you see with organ grinders—are more expensive than most monkeys on account of their remarkable intelligence. But most dealers will sell you a baby capuchin for between $5,000 and $7,000. If the police department in Mesa bought a monkey that had been trained extensively by its breeder, the price might be somewhat higher.
Baby monkeys tend to be more expensive than adults, for the same reason that puppies and kittens are more expensive than dogs and cats—they’re easier to train and they’re cuter. (Baby monkeys might be also be in higher demand among those monkey-owners who view their pets as surrogate human babies.) Females tend to be worth more than males, because in some species they are less aggressive.
Even though keeping monkeys as pets is frowned upon—it can be difficult, costly, cruel, and dangerous—they are easily obtained from private breeders. Lemurs, tamarins, and marmosets run in the range of $1,500 to $2,500; rhesus macaques and baboons might cost $3,500; and spider monkeys tend to be around $6,000. Chimpanzees cost upward of $60,000, which is considerably more than you would pay even for a giraffe (around $45,000) and 20 or 30 times more than you’d lay out for a zebra or a lion cub.
Not everyone buys monkeys from private breeders. Zoos usually get their animals from on-site breeding programs, private donations, and from other zoos. Some handicapped people receive trained capuchin monkeys at no charge from a nonprofit organization called Helping Hands, which trains animals to do chores around the house, cook and serve food, and perform other simple tasks. Public research labs often buy monkeys from a colony at one of the national primate research centers. Prices at these institutions vary, but a macaque might cost anywhere between $4,000 and $8,000 depending on its age and gender. Some centers, like the one at Harvard, operate a “superclean” colony of monkeys that are guaranteed to be free of nine specific viruses. The superclean certification, of course, comes at a higher price.
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Explainer thanks Ryan Blakley of Walter’s World of Pets, Memory Davies of Wild Animal World, and Ronald Desrosiers of the Harvard Medical School.