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Pet primates on social media: the reality behind the screen

In this blog we will be digging deeper into the issue of primates as pets on social media. To find out even more, take a look at our spotlight report: The cruelty you don't see: The suffering of pet macaques for social media content


You’re scrolling on social media and you see a video of a baby monkey learning to climb up a tree branch. The video makes you laugh and feel happy, as the monkey ends up hung upside down, still getting used to their limbs and developing their climbing skills. You swipe to the next video, showing a similar looking monkey wearing a diaper and being bottle-fed by a human. 


SMACC has found from its research that non-human primates are often shown in social media content, with primates being depicted as pets is one of the most common forms of content. Unfortunately, this content causes harm and suffering and can spread the wrong messages about how we should treat primates. 


Primates can be found in social media content depicted as pets in a number of ways. Some, such as macaques, marmosets and capuchins may be seen kept as pets in people’s homes, shown being fed and played with. They may be kept on leashes, dressed in human clothing and wearing diapers. Some primates are featured as performers, being shown doing tricks, trained behaviors or maybe even acting like humans. All of these depictions sadly are very likely to involve suffering for the primates involved, whether their owners are aware of this or not. 


SMACC has found that macaques, usually pig-tailed and long-tailed macaques, are the most common species of primates being kept as pets in social media content. Worryingly, southern pig-tailed macaques and long-tailed macaques are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species (1).


When watching a one-minute video it can be hard to tell if an animal might be suffering if all appears well. The psychological harms inflicted on animals are not always obvious to see but these can be just as severe as physical abuse. Therefore, it is important to not only look for obvious or direct signs of animal suffering, but also to consider the bigger picture of how these animals are treated and how they are likely to experience life being kept as a pet.



Who are primates?


Primates are a group of animals made up of monkeys, apes (including humans), and other closely related animals such as lemurs, tarsiers and lorises. Primates are intelligent, complex animals, capable of feeling emotions such as sadness, joy, and pain.(2,3) Many species have been shown to use tools, they have complex communication systems, they can live in groups of multiple hundreds, pass culture down from one to another and they can have life-long partners, friendships and other relationships. They are amazing!


Primate species play a crucial role in many of the world’s ecosystems, including the incredible jungles, forests, wetlands and other habitats that they call home. Unfortunately, many species of primates are threatened with extinction in the wild due to human-induced pressures such as climate change, deforestation and trade.


All non-human primates are wild animals. Unlike dogs or cats, they are not domesticated animals. They have not undergone the long process that enables domesticated animals to live good lives with human beings, in our homes. Therefore, the ways in which we see primates in captivity in social media content are not suitable and in fact, are damaging to the animals involved. (4,5)


Just like all animals, primates should be protected from harm and suffering. 


Maternal deprivation


Often, the individuals kept as pets and featured in social media videos are babies, some just days or weeks old.(6) These babies are cute, with big wide eyes and a reliance on the humans around them to take care of them. It is easy to see why people might enjoy watching such content.


These babies will have either been bred or taken from the wild to be kept as pets. Either way, these animals undergo trauma from being removed from their mothers at such a young age. Primates are physically and emotionally dependent on their mothers for extended periods of time. For example, infant macaques typically rely on their mother for the first several months of their lives. It takes years for them to gain full independence, and even then, they may remain close with their mothers for life.  


A vast and long-established body of research has demonstrated that maternal deprivation has devastating and irreversible physiological and psychological consequences for primates, leading to persistent behavioral abnormalities like rocking, pacing, self-harm, extreme aggression or reactivity, or despondency.(7) 


When we see baby monkeys being treated like human babies, being bottle-fed or bathed, what we are seeing is an individual who has been removed from their mother at a much earlier age than is natural, which causes long-lasting physical and psychological suffering.


Social needs


Primates, just like humans, are social beings. They have a fundamental need to interact with others for their mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, as much as someone may love their pet primate, humans cannot give them everything the animals need emotionally to thrive. Primates need to be around others of their own kind, who they can directly communicate with, learn from and interact with in a way only their species can. Pet primates, raised in human households rather than in the complex social groups of their own species, are deprived of this. Social interactions are fundamentally important to their psychological needs.(8,9) 




Natural behaviors


Primates in captivity are also denied the opportunity to carry out many of their natural behaviors when kept in an unnatural environment. In the wild, primates would spend a great deal of their time foraging for food and roaming freely. This involves exploring their large, ever-changing habitat, searching for food and sometimes cooperating with their others. In captivity, freedom to socialize, roam, and forage is just not possible and can lead to intense frustration.


Physical health


The diet of a pet primate is severely lacking compared to the diets they would have in the wild. In social media content, we can see pet primates being fed junk food, fizzy drinks and other unhealthy foods. Obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, dental disease and other issues related to poor nutrition are sadly the norm for pet primates. (10,11) This negatively affects their welfare, quality of life and life expectancy, especially with poor or limited access to medical care.


Specialist primate veterinarians are few and therefore vets used to dealing with dogs and cats, will not likely have the knowledge and expertise required to ensure the health of the pet primates brought to them. Coupled with a lack of access to their species-specific environment, such as wide open spaces and high trees, primates reared in captivity can also experience stunted growth and physical deformities.(12)


Some videos on social media show primates such as macaques made to walk on their back legs (bipedal walking). This is a completely unnatural way of walking for non-human primates, their bodies are not evolved to walk on two legs. So, in order to capture this on film, primates are trained to do so. Sometimes, this involves their arms being restricted or tied behind their back.


What you can do 


Primates are complex, incredible animals who need to live wild and free to truly thrive. Keeping them as pets is severely detrimental to their physical and psychological health. Pet primate content on social media sadly causes suffering and can even normalize such treatment of primates. Now that you have this knowledge, you can see beyond what is shown in the videos, and truly understand how pet primates suffer.


If you find such content, SMACC encourages you to follow SMACC’s 5 Steps to End Online Animal Cruelty Content. : 

  1. Be aware

  2. Do not watch

  3. Do not engage

  4. Do not share 

  5. Report it!


By taking these actions you can help create a positive future for primates. Thank you!

Find out more: SMACC Public Advice


Read the next blog in this series: Red flags in social media videos featuring primates




References

  1. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, https://www.iucnredlist.org/en

  2. Proctor, H. 2012. Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading?. Animals 2, no. 4: 628-639. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani2040628

  3. Magden, E. R., Mansfield, K. G., Simmons, J. H., & Abee, C. R. (2015). Nonhuman Primates. Laboratory Animal Medicine, 771–930. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-12-409527-4.00017-1

  4. Aldrich, B. C., Feddema, K., Fourage, A., Nekaris, K. A. I., & Shanee, S. (in preparation). Primate Portrayals: Narratives and Perceptions of Primates in Entertainment. In T. McKinney, S. Waters, & M. Rodrigues (Eds.), Primates in anthropogenic landscapes: Exploring primate behavioural ecology across human contexts. Springer

  5. Nekaris, K. A. I., Musing, L., Vazquez, A. G., & Donati, G. (2015). Is Tickling Torture? Assessing Welfare towards Slow Lorises (Nycticebus spp.) within Web 2.0 Videos. Folia Primatologica, 86(6), 534–551. https://doi.org/10.1159/000444231

  6. Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition. (2023) The cruelty you don't see: The suffering behind pet macaques on social media. Available at https://www.smaccoalition.com/macaque-report 

  7. Latham, N. R., & Mason, G. J. (2008). Maternal deprivation and the development of stereotypic behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 110(1–2), 84–108. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2007.03.02

  8. Aldrich, B. C., & Neale, D. (2021). Pet Macaques in Vietnam: An NGO’s Perspective. Animals, 11(1), 60. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11010060

  9. Lewis, M. H., Gluck, J. P., Petitto, J. M., Hensley, L. L., & Ozer, H. (2000). Early social deprivation in nonhuman primates: Long-term effects on survival and cell-mediated immunity. Biological Psychiatry, 47(2), 119–126

  10. Hevesi, R. (2023). The welfare of primates kept as pets and entertainers. In Nonhuman primate welfare: From history, science, and ethics to practice (pp. 121–144). Springer

  11. Pritzker K. P. H & Kessler M. J (2012) Arthritis, Muscle, Adipose Tissue, and Bone Diseases of Nonhuman Primates. In: Abee BR, Mansfield K, Tardif SD and Morris T. (eds.) Nonhuman primates in biomedical research: Diseases, Academic Press, London, pp. 629-698

  12. Duarte-Quiroga, A. & Estrada, A., 2003. Primates as pets in Mexico City: An assessment of the species involved, source of origin, and general aspects of treatment. American Journal of Primatology, 61(2), pp. 53-60


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