Written by S. Bowyer





     In the US, 15,000 primates are owned by families, and monkey adoptions are a growing phenomenon. However, there is great concern for owners and the wellbeing of many animals. "But why a monkey?" someone may ask.

     Monkey parents state they chose monkeys over other domesticated animals because of the bond they can share. Capuchins keep their baby-like attributes, always requiring careful feeding, diaper-changing, playful behaviours and strong attachments to the mother figure.


     "It was like having a newborn baby -- he was so tiny."
     "She's my kid for the rest of my life."
     "They're like my adopted daughters."
     "I really don't think there's much of a difference between a monkey and a human baby. They still have the baby food, and the diapers. . . I have 2 infants for 30 years. . . there's never a dull moment."
     "I think a lot of people get a monkey bcause they are so cute and it makes a nice show-and-tell."

     In the documentary, My Child is a Monkey, the lifestyle of the Capuchin monkey and its blending into human society is explored, seeking to discover the effects to both species -- human and animal. We start to realise while there are some success stories where a bond is created suitably, there is also a need to understand the situation fully, whether owner or neighbour, on how the entire social environment might be affected. Ignorance could lead to murder or severe disfigurement of owner or animal, as was the case on family-gone-wrong in the Charla Nash case, the woman who lost her face to her friend's chimpanzee baby, Travis.



     My Child is A Monkey sought to explore how errors are made, why they snowball from risk to fruition, and what warning signs could prevent such a hazard from happening again. While the film showed much of what went wrong, it also showed the cases where monkeys were living suitable lives, whether in households or sanctuaries.



     The most important topic to understand of monkey ownership, which is going to be the biggest clue on why problems persist, is how babies are harvested. Through the documentary we follow Justine, who has saved several thousands dollars to purchase her first Capuchin. She meets with a breeder to pick up her baby. The woman comes out to hand over her baby, and introduces them. When Justine asks to see the parents, the woman explains she wishes to keep the baby away from their cage to avoid a scene. She explains that the baby was only just taken away, at the age of two days old.

     Monkeys share a bond with the mother which means body-to-body contact and nursing for the first two years of their lives. Their mother will jump from tree to tree with their babies latched on safely. Many of their social skills and traits will be learnt during this time. Taking the baby away at 2 days is practiced because it means the human mother will gain more of a bond with the monkey, but essentially causes social retardation and maladaptive behaviours. Monkeys that are removed from their mothers will often have a towel, stuffed toy or inanimate object which they will attach to obsessively.

     Kari Bagnall, the founder/director of Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary explains, "They're supposed to be on their mother's back and they're running through the forest. They're now stuck on an inanimate object so they're rocking and rocking. . . rocking themselves into oblivion and it's just horrible to see that. It's a terrible sign."

     Primatologist, Katherine C. Mackinnon Ph.D further explains, "So if the monkey is pulled from it's mother at 3 days of age, we get the classic rocking, tail sucking, hair pulling, biting. . . these repetative actions that infants do not do in wild groups."

     A lack of social skills is just the beginning of the monkey dilemma, owners also having to deal with aggression that occurs from sexual maturity (4-5 years old), family disruption and competition, human overindulgences that introduce health problems into monkey specimens, difficulties finding medical care, and dealing with a baby that won't grow up or easily learn their lessons.

     Dr. Parrott D. V. M says she wouldn't believe primates make good pets for most people. "They're 24/7 and they're an ADHD kid all the time."

     The US government are showing signs of agreement, 20 states now banning primate ownership due to the issues of maltreated or untrained monkeys and the many bites and serious injuries to owners and their local area.



     Monkeys are a hierachy breed, meaning their social cues are influenced by who is most dominant in the pack, their place in the society, and who they associate with. In a family household, teaching them manners can be difficult, as they will challenge for attention or other things they might be jealous of another family member having. They do not speak English, so therefore will show their competative nature by hair pulling, scratching, biting or stealing objects. These patterns are seen as miniscule problems when they are young, however as sexual maturity peaks, an unspayed animal can cause serious wounds to family members. With ADHD-like tendencies, they are not fast to tire or give up.

     Humans sometimes invest into the risk by not understanding monkey behaviors or traits. It's common for a monkey to "grin," which can be seen as a friendly gesture, when in fact it's a sign of challenge or anger. Alternatively, a Capuchin getting closer to the mother figure might also be the first sign they are going to challenge her human children for her affections. This request for battle could easily be misunderstood by the casual observer.

     Bite risks will increase if the behaviours are not noticed and handled. Bites are also very common if the monkey is unspayed.



     When a monkey hits sexual maturity, biting and aggression increases. In nature this is when they begin to compete for the female's attention to gain a mating partner and establish their place in the hierachy. When in human families, this conbatativeness will be directed elsewhere, such as towards partners of their primary parent or humans seen as siblings. It's been documented that monkeys are mostly dumped at this stage, when family members are bitten or injured by unspayed Capuchins.

     Monkey mother Charlene, says, "I do worry about his behaviour changing when puberty hits. I know that he's going to become more aggressive; he's going to become more dominant. "

     The documentary shows when Ronnie, an adult monkey Charlene interacts with, starts acting out at a public restaurant. He nips at Charlene's oldest son, then another monkey pulls the hair of her daughter.

     "He didn't leave a mark or anything like that. It's kinda like a dog when they growl at you. They're giving you that warning of 'don't cross this line or else there's going to be more consequences.' "



     Monkey health is of concern when kept in captivity. Often their suburbia diets do not mimick their natural diet enough, causing human-type health conditions. We visit with Audrey, who has two monkeys called Cleo and Lacey. We see her give them milk and eggs for breakfast. Audrey says that their favourite foods are nuts, corn on the cob, bacon, spaghetti, cooked or uncooked pasta, and we see them eating crisps.

     When the monkeys are taken to the vet, there is some concern. Lacey is diagnosed as diabetic, due to a diet high in fat and sugar.

     It's becoming more common that monkeys in captivity are gaining human-created conditions that they aren't suffering in the wild. Along with diabetes, vets are seeing prevalence of obesity, heart conditions, blood pressure problems, and hormonal imbalances, almost all cases stemming from incorrect diet. The correct nourishment for a Capuchin is 70% monkey chow, which is made from forest products, and 30% fruit and vegetable. Diets are not meant to contain fatty, greasy, sugary, or salty foods that come from packets.



     The added difficulty of maintaining a monkey's health is that many vets in America will not treat monkeys, so owners often have to seek out exotic vets. One of the beliefs is that monkeys spread more infections and so having them on the premises will cause risk to other patients, however it's been found that monkeys have very delicate immune systems and the heavier risk is their catching something from another animal. Other vets refuse to treat because they say monkeys are too unpredictable.

     Two medical procedures commonly seen in human-raised monkeys are spaying and teeth removal. Both are done to protect human owners who have a mature monkey and reduce the chance of bites, but also the damage a successful bite would cause. Many owners opt for this, but there is debate if this is fair to the animal. The alternative would be sactuary living if the family lose control of the monkey, or long-term caging to prevent further interactions or opportunities of attack.



     Despite a lot who say monkey mothering isn't safe, Lisa Whiteaker, a primate trainer, says it's possible. Coined the Monkey Whisperer, she and her monkey, Mogwai, have traveled America over the past 16 years teaching humans how to train and care for their primates. Whiteaker agrees monkeys can bite, but she states it's quite possible to have family harmony with the right training. She likens it to understanding if a dog is coming at you.

     "You gotta do whatever it takes in your physical being to get away from it, but there are proper techniques that you use in doing a monkey. How to train a monkey is the way that you look at them, your physical, the way that you move, your movements, the direct contact. In a monkey you absolutely have to (have direct contact) or it goes through one ear, out the other."

     We see Lisa working with a family who own a monkey who becomes jealous over the husband when the wife is present. The family is concerned as they are expecting a baby and there have already been several instances of bites and aggression. Lisa uses voice commands, behaviourism tricks and a leash to help gain control of the monkey, telling the monkey's key figure, husband Sean, that the work will take a lot of time.

     Lisa explains, "He didn't buy a baby -- he bought an older monkey. Didn't know nothing about it. If you don't establish Alpha, the monkey is going to run over you like crazy. Sean is not the Alpha; he's far from it."

     Alpha training is considered important, however how it's done varies from trainer to trainer, some with careful measure, and others with little regard for the animal.

     "One of the misconceptions people have is that they can train a wild animal. You don't train wild animals . . . it's domination," Kari Bagnall explains. "They dominate the animal, and I have talked to trainers that said all you need to do is punch them right square in the face. They won't bite you again. Or throw them up against the wall and they won't bite."

     Lisa Whitetaker doesn't appear to use the brutal tricks mentioned, however she does explain there are methods to use if training isn't successful. She highlights that tooth removal will mean bites are only bruises from gums, meaning safer family interactions.



     When monkey training doesn't work, monkeys are either isolated within the family home, or surrendered to sanctuary, where the environments and routines try and mimick the natural life monkeys usually lead. The sanctuary has a waiting list of monkeys needing to live at the sanctuary, families unable to care for them. 70% of ex-pets come in with health problems.

     Kari Bagnall of Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary runs such an establishment, and speaks of how monkeys arrive at their doorstep. "We have a lot of diabetic monkeys. In the wild, of course, they don't get diabetes, but unfortunately, humans. . . they feed the monkeys junk."

     "They usually come in bad shape -- had them come in almost dead. It's really a tough thing to try and keep them alive."

     George and Jill live at the sanctuary, both toothless, presumably they were removed by their ex-owners. Macey lives at the sanctuary too, often visited by her owners who couldn't house her anymore. They explain she was resistant to being caught and became very strong by the age of three. She would lash out and bite the female owner, drawing blood and pulling hair. Any signs of affection from either parent would cause her to become jealous and attack. They now visit Macey at the sanctuary, paying $US150 per month to keep her homed.

     "The phenomenon is not new; it's just had a resurgence. It is getting so out of proportion it's really horrible," says Bagnall.



     The US government are taking notice of how monkeys live in captivity, many areas of America wanting to control ownership. Monkey owners who speak online state they would move home if their state banned monkeys, some suggesting buying an island to live on if bans become nation-wide. They demand in keeping the freedom to choose.

     "They go mad in captivity. It needs to be federally that you cannot have a pet wild animal. It's wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong for the monkeys, wrong for the humans, in every sense of the word," says Bagnall.

     As to the direction of the bans, time will tell. The monkey community wish to show that their babies can be productive members of society, but it seems the odds are against them with people able to own monkeys without the correct training, unsuitable diet and medical support, and without understanding of the monkey lifestyle.



     When a monkey attacks, they go from lovable child into a vicious, destructive creature. Such was seen in the Charla Nash case, the woman who was savagely attacked by a pet monkey of her best friend. Click to read, Charla Nash, the Woman Who Lost her Face .

     Like any animal or child, the correct lifestyle and training must be administered to create the right atmosphere and guidelines to fit into the family regime. Ignorance or lack of research does not make up for the damage that can be done, or the lives that can be destroyed. As always, be forewarned and prepared before taking on new commmittments.


     My Child is a Monkey can be found on many online streaming sites, including Youtube.

  • No comments found