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Dallas Pet Monkey Survives, Lands Home at Primate Sanctuary

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Kiki in her new home at the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary | Born Free USA

When five-year-old Kiki was picked up by a primate sanctuary worker outside of Dallas city limits in June, it was the beginning of her authentic life as a vervet monkey. A private family had kept her as a pet since she was just three months old until they surrendered Kiki to Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary, a national animal advocacy.

“It was partly because the family wanted a bit more freedom to travel because obviously when you have a pet monkey, you can’t just drop them off at your local boarding kennel,” said Dr. Liz Tyson, programs director and head of the primate sanctuary at Born Free USA. “Eventually, owners can’t cope with them because they don’t really know what a monkey requires. No monkey can thrive in a cage on their own.”

Born Free USA, which sits between San Antonio and Laredo on 175 acres, is one of three sanctuaries in Texas that provide a forever home to many species of nonhuman primates, such as baboons, macaques, and vervets. They are rescued from private owners, roadside zoos, from being on display or retired from animal experimentation.

“Monkeys will often sell for multiple thousands of dollars,” Tyson told Dallas Express. “There are breeders who breed monkeys to sell to members of the public.”

On the seven-hour drive from to the sanctuary, Kiki was inquisitive about the world she could see around her from the car window while she snacked on pieces of fruit, according to Tyson.

“Kiki was very skinny and she was suffering from chronic stress, which was a direct result of the way she was kept,” Tyson said. “She spent a couple of weeks in quarantine, which we have to do to make sure that she’s healthy so that she doesn’t can pass any diseases onto the other monkeys we care for here. Now, she’s moved into her permanent enclosure, which is alongside other vervets that have been rehomed at the sanctuary.”

Last year, Born Free USA rescued five monkeys and in 2021, so far, only Kiki and Gambit have been rescued.

Gambit is a 5-year-old male rhesus macaque whom Born Free USA drove to Nevada to pick up from a private owner in Las Vegas.

“We have another two coming,” Tyson said in an interview. “We get approached to take far more animals than we can take on. We’ve actually been approached to take 18 monkeys so far this year, and we can’t take all of them because we don’t have the space. Building a brand-new enclosure from scratch, as opposed to putting a monkey into an existing space, costs about a hundred thousand dollars.”

In 31 states, private ownership of nonhuman primates is currently prohibited but they can still be obtained through out-of-state dealers and internet auctions. The state of Texas only partially bans or requires permits for certain primates.

“Within the city limits, Dallas does have some regulations that certain species of monkeys cannot be kept but Kiki’s private owners lived outside of the city of Dallas,” Tyson said.

Born Free USA is advocating to make the Captive Primate Safety Act a federal law.

If animal lovers want to help, Tyson advises they call members of Congress in their district.

“Ask them to support the bill as it moves through the process,” she said.

Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 12, 2021, the Captive Primate Safety Act would ban buying and selling across state lines of primates as pets as well as private ownership with exemptions for legitimate sanctuaries, universities, and other facilities.

If approved, the bill would also restrict contact between the public and primates.

“There are mobile zoo settings where somebody takes the animals to a party or a workplace,” Tyson added. “Currently, it’s legal to interact with primates in those spaces or to handle them at a zoo. It would prohibit those interactions.”

Some 15,000 primates are kept as pets in U.S. homes, according to Born Free USA data, and although monkeys are highly intelligent and sensitive, they have an inherent need to live among their own species. As a result, monkeys, who were taken from their mothers as babies and raised by humans, have to be gradually integrated into their natural habitat once they are rehomed at a sanctuary because most have never socialized with other monkeys.

“What we see a lot when we rescue a new monkey is that they are quite focused on humans to start with just because that’s what they know and then gradually we see them taking less and less of an interest in us and become more interested in other monkeys,” Tyson said.

Although smaller vervet monkeys are considered to be less dangerous than apes and gorillas, Tyson warns that they are wild animals.

“Vervet monkeys can attack their owners with a very nasty bite and there’s also the risk of illnesses that could pass to humans from a monkey like yellow fever, monkey pox, Ebola and Marburg virus, Herpes B, simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), viral hepatitis, and measles,” she said.

Now that Kiki is comfortably situated at the sanctuary, she will receive medical care, meals, room to roam and explore in a natural setting, freedom from unnecessary interactions with humans, and plenty of time to socialize with other monkeys.

But caring for primates isn’t cheap. It costs about $1,125 per year to care for one monkey, which is why Born Free USA allows for remote adoption. Sponsoring a monkey costs $52 a year, which helps with their lifetime care.

“Multiple people can adopt various monkeys but you don’t get to take the monkey home,” she said. “We provide photos and regular updates on what they’ve been up to, who they’ve been hanging out with and how life is going for them.”

Contributors can also donate directly on Born Free USA’s website.

“The exotic pet trade in monkeys is not a problem that can be solved simply by rehoming animals to sanctuaries,” said Angela Grimes, CEO of Born Free USA. “We need legislative action to ban private ownership of these animals across the U.S. We urge the public to speak out in support of this bill and for Congress to act quickly to pass it through the legislative process.”