There are over 500 different species of primates, ranging from the great apes to the tiny marmosets and tamarin monkeys. Primates are incredibly diverse, ranging in size, diets, habitats and behaviour. Many of the primate species are very like us humans, and chimpanzees and bonobos share 99.6% of their DNA with us.
Primates have been seen to grieve
Grief is often considered to be a higher ability, one that is unique to us humans. Yet there are many accounts of non-human primates grieving the loss of a close family member. In fact, accounts of primates grieving go back as far as 1879, when a naturalist described a captive male chimpanzee grieving the loss of his female friend who he had been housed alone with for many years. When the male chimp came across his deceased friend and could not rouse her, he screamed and tore at his hair. He tried to stop the keepers from removing her body, and then spent the rest of the day moaning and crying, and even uttered a sound never heard before, which was thought to be specific to his grief
Infant carrying as a form of grief
One behaviour seen in primates that is thought to be a sign of grief, is the carrying of deceased infants. The mothers treat their deceased infants differently from their live ones, and so they know they have died, yet they carry their bodies around for days, if not weeks. In one case, a snub-nosed monkey held her dead infant for four days, before the researchers removed it. She carried it, groomed it, and when the body was removed, she vocalised for days. During this time, she also withdrew from the social group. This withdrawal of normal activities such as social grooming, are similar to the depression and withdrawal seen in grieving humans.
Compensating for the loss
In other extraordinary cases, primates who have lost their infants have been seen to compensate by treating their living older children as infants again, feeding, nest sharing, and even carrying them3.
Losing a mother
In one tragic and famous case of chimpanzee grief, the sheer grief of losing a loved mother was just too much for a young male. Flint was 5 years old when his brother was born, and he was extremely jealous of the new arrival. When his mother’s attentions were diverted to the new baby, Flint became depressed. Sadly, their mother became sick, and she and the young infant died. Flint sunk into depression, and although his older siblings tried to care for him, he just became more listless. He would revisit nests he had shared with his mother, sitting staring at them for long periods. Although he was old enough to survive without her, the grief was too much. One night he travelled to where his mother had died, sat staring at the site for hours, then moved on a little, curled up, and died. He had just simply lost the will to live.
Losing a pet
Koko was a gorilla who had been taught to use sign-language. She was given a kitten as a pet and developed a strong, loving bond with her feline companion. When the kitten sadly died, Koko told her trainer in sign language “cry, sad, frown”. Koko was able to clearly communicate her emotional state, and she showed her trainers that she was grieving the loss of her kitten. Koko remained withdrawn for weeks, and only cheered up once she was given a new cat.
Primates are sensitive, empathic and feeling beings
Grief is just one of the many emotions that primates share with us humans, but it is a particularly remarkable one. To experience grief, primates need to form deep, loving bonds with others, they need to understand that their loved one is gone forever, and they need to have the emotional capacity for this loss to cause grief. Grief is a complicated emotion, and we do not fully understand it in humans. It is clear from these cases that primates experience grief in similar ways that we humans do. After all, we are not that different, and we humans are of course just another species of primate.
Primates really are amazing animals
The fact that primates are emotional beings means that their welfare must be protected. These feeling beings suffer when mistreated by humans, whether that is by being kept inappropriately as pets, being made to perform tricks for tourists, or being experimented upon in laboratories. Primates are wild animals, and they belong in the wild where they can be with their loved ones, be free to feed, play, groom, travel, and socialise as they have evolved to do.
Primates as pets
Around the world many different species of primates are kept cruelly as pets, often housed alone and in cages far too small and bare to offer any kind of comfort to these intelligent, feeling beings. It is very difficult, if not impossible to meet the needs of these complex animals in captivity. Most primate species live in large social groups in the wild, travel long distances for food, and require significant stimulation, which captivity cannot provide.
Primates in entertainment
Sadly, many primates are used to entertain tourists around the world and the tourists unwittingly pay into this cruel trade. In order to be made to perform these tricks, the primates are first taken as infants from their mothers, and their mothers are likely killed in the process. The infants are then trained using cruel techniques to do all sorts of demeaning tricks, such as ride bicycles, or juggle. Once they grow too old and dangerous, they are either killed, sold on, or released back into the wild where they will likely starve.
Primates in experimentation
Many primates are used in experiments, whether for testing medicines, toiletries, or for behavioural studies. Depending on where they are in the world, the primates may be housed singly, undergo significant pain and suffering from painful experiments, experience long-term captivity, and be unable to fulfil their natural behaviours. A life in a cage is no life for any animal.
What can we do to help primates?
Primates belong in the wild, and that is the best place to see them. Unfortunately, some tourist operators exploit wild primates and put their health and safety at risk. If you want to see primates in the wild then be sure to find an ethical tour guide who will respect the safety and boundaries of the animals.
No performing primate is doing so by their own choice. They will have been removed from the wild, taken from their mothers, and made to perform tricks for tourists. Avoid fuelling this cruel trade, and do not pay to see primates perform, or pay for photographs with wild animals.
To find out more about how to help primates, visit these sites:
RSPCA- stop the trade of primates as pets
Sign a pledge to say that you will not add to the misery of wild animals being used in entertainment
Help stop the international trade in monkeys for research