19.12.2014 - 16:49
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Department of Primatology

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
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Capuchins as Pets

The social intelligence, robust adaptability and clever hands of capuchins have unfortunately made them perhaps the most commonly used primates as pets and in entertainment. People put capuchins in dresses, tie them on to dogs to perform in rodeos, keep them chained up or caged. The behaviors and vocalizations of capuchins in such circumstances that seem ‘crazy’ or ‘cute’ are, to someone experienced in observing capuchins in their natural groups in the wild, clear signs that the monkey is distressed. In this video, one of countless others available on the internet, the sounds this male capuchin makes, as well as his facial expressions, are the same that we see in our free-living monkeys from one being attacked or otherwise threatened by another monkey. He is terrified, and likely has had his canine teeth removed to keep him from biting in an attempt to protect himself in such situations. If he were in a wild group, most likely another monkey would jump to his aid, taking his side in this unfair situation, at least part of the time. And if he and his friends and family were of too low status in their group to take that risk, they could go off to the periphery for a nice relaxing grooming session, maybe some rough and tumble play, followed by a nap in a cuddly pile of monkeys. 

 
Left: Diablita supports Duende against a common enemy. Right: Vishnu grooms her cousin, Bilbo, which is relaxing
for both of them.

If you are considering getting a capuchin or any other monkeys as a pet, you may intend to treat it like a baby, as a special member of your family. But without having spent hundreds of hours observing the natural behavior of these animals, you will not understand their needs and what they are trying to communicate. As a researcher who has spent years of my life getting to know wild capuchins, I still would not take one as a pet because I can never provide the rich social life in which capuchins thrive.

The most important thing in a capuchin’s life? – Other capuchins.

Capuchin monkeys’ social lives are so like ours that it is appropriate to imagine for yourself what it would be like if you were taken captive by aliens, who did their best to treat you well, but whose language you did not speak and they did not learn yours. When you cried or screamed, they thought you were amused, so they would do whatever caused you to feel bad again and again. They never went to earth to see how humans lived, so they dressed you in strange costumes and fed you what you would never normally eat. Maybe they couldn’t even tell if you were a man or a woman (a capuchin female has a very large clitoris, which becomes erect when she is excited, so she is often mistaken for a male. For example, Whiplash, the famous ‘cowboy’ monkey is a female, but is referred by her owner for over 20 years as a “he”). Either way, you could never interact with your friends or family or any other member of your species. 

Having several monkeys to keep each other company is not a solution any more than if the aliens threw a few random other people in your enclosure  with you. Just like humans, not all capuchins get along. In wild groups, individual capuchins form friendships and alliances with some monkeys, but are always getting into fights with others. And of course, it is even harder to get along with others in a crowded, stressful situation, as captivity will always be for capuchins. In their natural habitat, capuchins often roam over kilometers of forest each day, eat hundreds of different foods that they’ve mastered the technique of recognizing and extracting over their long lifespan, and can rest, play, sleep, and run as they choose, and with whom they choose. No captive habitat can ever provide such an exciting and fulfilling life for a capuchin.

If you would like to learn more about the social lives and intelligence of capuchin monkeys, I would encourage you to read this book about the capuchins of Lomas Barbudal, written by one who has been passionately observing their dramas for over 20 years. You can also Adopt a Capuchin to get an insider’s view of the drama-filled life of a monkey at Lomas Barbdudal, while supporting researching into these amazing animals.