Who Is a Lemur, and Why Would One Live in Texas?
Kecko is a ring-tailed lemur. A lemur is neither ape nor monkey, but a member of a primate species that goes back to the time before monkeys and the (generally larger) apes branched apart.
To be added to some 15,000 other primates kept as pets in the United States, Kecko was bred in captivity, then sold through a breeder in Louisiana.
Until age seven, Kecko lived with a human family. Then, however, Kecko became hard to manage. Maturing primates do. Kecko was acting like a ring tailed lemur, not a human.
One episode—an unexpected jump onto a child’s back—got Kecko confined to a parrot cage for a decade. Kecko was denied physical contact, and had only a small limb upon which to perch. This lone lemur, whose relatives are indigenous to Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa, sat alone in a cage while his owner emotionally wrestled with what to do with him. For ten years.
Then, one summer day in 2008, Primarily Primates got a phone call. The sanctuary’s director, Stephen Tello, drove to the Houston suburb where Kecko lived.
This overweight primate had been fed a commercial diet intended for parrots, and suffered from an enlarged scent gland, perhaps the result of futile attempts to mark territory in a small cage. Tello knew immediately that the transition to the refuge would require close monitoring and delicate care.
But Kecko would finally move to an outdoor living space, ultimately to join a community of other lemurs, to exercise and socialize with them. To live as close as possible to a natural habitat, where Kecko would have eaten mostly fruits, leaves, and tree sap, ingesting the occasional insect or piece of tree bark during the dry season. Kecko would have lived in a matriarchal group comprised of 11 to 17 other lemurs, active by day. Lemurs can often be found basking in the sun, sitting in what looks like a meditative pose, arms resting on outstretched legs—a stark contrast to life in a cage with no natural sunlight. Kecko, if allowed to live free, would have moved fluidly over the ground and in the canopy of trees. Kecko’s new surroundings mimic that habitat.
Bought and Sold
The global trade in non-domesticated animals is a $6 billion industry. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, between 2003 and 2006 more than 650 million animals were legally brought into the United States—which would equal two imported individuals for each human being living here! That doesn’t include animals like Kecko, bred in captivity to be sold as a pet.
Nor does that figure include animals snatched from their habitat illegally. The extent of the illegal trade in primates is, of course, unknown, but could well be as big as the above-ground trade.
As well as pets, imported animals are turned into zoo exhibitions, research tools, food commodities, and game targets. Each year, about 200 million in the shipments are fish, and more than six million are amphibians and reptiles. More than a quarter of a million are birds. Mammals number in the tens of thousands.
Those with the case can find just about any kind of animal. A tiger for $2,500. A lion for $3,000. A chimpanzee for $30,000, but you can haggle. Macaque monkeys go for about $5,000, little capuchins a bit more. At a website called “Wild Animal World” as of late 2008, guenons – tree-dwellers with remarkably long tails—are listed at $5,800. Frail tamarins, little monkeys with lions’ manes, are sold for $4,000, and the ever-so-delicate spider monkeys for $6,500. Lemurs like Kecko show an asking price of $3,500, and a wallaby – you know, the Australian mammals who look like tiny kangaroos -- will cost a bit more.
How can it be?
Stephen Tello estimates 60% of the animals at Primarily Primates are discarded pets. Typically, the animal starts to bite and becomes aggressive, or picks up a nervous habit, like self-harming or feverishly pacing in the cage, or screaming. Maybe there was an awkward escape from a cage, and someone gets bitten. The right veterinary doctor is elusive or expensive. Or a subtle guilt creeps in; the owner picks up cues that the animal is bored and lonely. Or maybe the owner is moving or having a child. Some people, says Tello, threaten to kill their pets or “set them free in park” if Primarily Primates can’t make room.
Nonhuman primates are most often abandoned by their owners between the ages of four and eight—after they’ve started maturing, and sometimes after their owners have had their teeth removed in an effort to restrict their assertive personalities.
Here’s a typical story, with a dateline of September 2008. We copied it exactly as it was received at Primarily Primates.
Hi, I have a five year old Java Macaque named Febe. I am very close to her, as she is to me since I raised her from birth. This past year I have really started to feel bad for her. I own my own business and can’t always give her the attention she needs. Also, the older she gets, the more aggressive and unpredictable she is. She is a sweetheart to me and other adults, but very unpredictable with younger kids and teens. Therefore, I can’t involve her in many visiting situations. I wish she was in a huge enclosure with friends and things to keep her busy. I think she is lonely. She just paces back and forth non stop in her cage while Im gone. My only worry is that she isnt very social with other monkeys. She has been around them on several occasions and is frightened by them. She just wants human affection. Does that mean she would never be happy in a camp like yours? How does Primarily Primates feel about adopting pets? ! What are the enclosures and life of the java macaques like? Would I ever be able to see her again?
P.S. I love what you guys are doing. I wish more people knew how cruel it was to raise a monkey as a pet. I was definitely misinformed of the responsibilities and consequences. Though I am a wonderful mom to Febe, I feel she is not getting near enough to provide her with a happy and fulfilling life.
Many people abandon their pets at zoos and humane societies because they are at a loss as to how to care for them. Wiser owners give the animals to sanctuaries, but rarely provide any monetary donation to the sanctuary. This creates an extraordinary burden for refuges such as Primarily Primates. Over the years, explains Stephen Tello, only a handful of former owners continue to sponsor their primates, or bother to send toys.
“Kecko sang today when I walked by,” wrote Priscilla Feral, Primarily Primates board chair, on the 6 th of October.
“Scarlet was walking high on a platform behind him,” Priscilla continued. “Kecko has shed extra weight, and looks healthy. Eventually [full-time veterinary doctor] Val Kirk will take a look at those facial lumps up close, and decide whether to surgically remove them.”
Dustin recalls: “I went to Primarily Primates in August 2008. I was elated. While it usually makes me sad to see animals in cages, Primarily Primates is a beautiful place— beautiful landscaping, well-tended grounds.”
The people who work there are devoted,” adds Dustin. “They’re committed to caring for good. Just imagine. Well over 400 residents, and each has a name. Each has a story. And each has a need for support.”
Kecko’s now living with another lemur, in a spacious living area, moving over the ground easily and freely. Kecko is far from Madagascar, but at last he has companionship, fresh fruit, sunshine and a living area full of places to climb.
One day -- if we all work for that day -- there will be no need for refuge. We’ll foster a whole world in which animals enjoy their natural habitats, without violent intrusions. One day.
If we all work for that day.
- Maryann Mott, “The Perils of Keeping Monkeys as Pets” - National Geographic (16 Sep. 2003).
- End Captivity (ENDCAP): Exotic Pet Trade Fact Sheet (2007).
- Margaret Ebrahim and John Solomon, “Exotic Pet Trade Booming in US” -- The Associated Press (27 Nov. 2006).
- Since 1975, US federal quarantine regulations forbid importing nonhuman primates as pets. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Importation of Non-Human Primates. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dq/nonhuman.htm; (last visited 15 Sep. 2008).