Welfare of primates: an introduction

The behaviour of primates is complex, and untypical behaviour is likely to be an indication that an animal’s needs are not being met. It's important that a keeper has enough knowledge to identify untypical behaviour.

About primates

Primates are long-lived, intelligent, socially-complex animals. They engage in imaginative problem-solving, form intricate social relationships, and display complex patterns of behaviour. Being social is a striking feature of primates, and amongst the most important in terms of meeting their needs. With few exceptions, they live in complex societies that can include tens of individual animals.

For their total life history, primates have long infant and juvenile phases, with social independence occurring long after nutritional weaning. This period is crucial for learning about the physical and social environment, parenting, survival, and reproduction. All primate species are long-lived, and need to be managed in old age.

It is highly likely that primates have awareness of pain, suffering and distress, and at least in some species an ability to think and reflect on these things. Such abilities could enhance their capacity for suffering.

A variety of species

Marmosets, capuchins, squirrel monkeys, macaques and lemurs make up the majority of primates kept in private collections, but other species are also kept.

It is essential that keepers should have a thorough understanding of the biology and behaviour of each species kept. The best source of information is to observe animals in their natural environment. Keepers will also benefit from observing animals in recognised zoological collections, and through discussion with experienced private keepers.

Primates should not be considered as pets in the accepted sense of the word. They are not a species that can be treated as part of the family in the way that a cat or dog might be. They are wild undomesticated animals that cannot be house-trained or fully tamed.

Dangerous wild animals

The majority of primates are kinds of dangerous, wild animals. The Dangerous Wild Animals (NI) Order 2004 makes rules for the keeping of dangerous, wild animals by private individuals. Zoos, pet shops and circuses aren’t covered by the Order because they operate under different laws.

Anyone wishing to get a dangerous, wild animal must apply for a licence before taking ownership of the animal. The Northern Ireland Environment Agency Biodiversity Unit has powers of inspection and the power to seize any animal being kept on premises without a licence or in conditions that break the licence rules. Anyone keeping a dangerous wild animal will have to allow annual inspections.

Selling dangerous wild animals to anyone without a licence will be a criminal offence. More than one wild animal can be held under a licence.

Find out more about dangerous wild animals and to download a dangerous wild animal licence application form, on the Department of Environment website.

Accommodation for primates

With the exception of a few solitary species, primates should not be kept singly. They should not generally be kept in domestic living spaces, and instead require specialised accommodation. Primates exhibit a wide range of behaviours, in particular social interaction and foraging behaviour.

Keepers should read extensively about the keeping of primates in general, and their chosen species in particular.

Sources of information include specialist staff in recognised zoological collections, experienced private keepers, and specialist primate rescue centres.

Whenever possible, hands-on experience should be obtained by voluntary work with primates before any decision on private acquisition is made. Primate keepers need to have the financial resources to cater for their animals’ needs throughout their lives. Keeping primates is an expensive activity.

Cost of keeping primates

The high price to buy the primate is only the first item on a list of costs that will need to be met throughout the long life of the primates concerned.

Requirements include:

  • an appropriately-constructed and sized enclosure wIll all year-round heating
  • specialist veterinary services
  • a wide variety of foods and supplements
  • environmental enrichment

Primate keepers should have the time and aptitude to observe their animals closely, and on a regular basis. Primates must be carefully observed, more so than for many other animals. Recognising good physical condition and normal behaviour when healthy will help to spot early signs of inappropriate behaviours and worsening physical health, so that the necessary action can be taken.

Breeding should not be undertaken unless the keeper is confident that offspring can be placed with owners able to provide suitable care. Contraception methods should be utilised to prevent unwanted breeding.

You should keep written animal care and health plans. The plan should set out what is necessary to meet your responsibilities. The plan will also be useful when other people help with day-to-day care, or if you pass your animals to the care of another keeper:

Primates, like all other animals, will require veterinary attention from time to time. Regular advice and routine health monitoring will be required in addition to emergency care. This should be provided by a vet experienced in primate care. Keepers need to identify an experienced veterinary practice before acquiring any primate.

Keepers should make reasonable provisions in the event that they are themselves unable to look after their animals. There is a requirement for continuity of care, and the responsibility for animal welfare should be passed to a suitably experienced person in the event that the usual keeper is unavailable.

The person asked to care for the keeper’s primates should be familiar with their normal behaviour, and should be able to recognise signs of physical and mental abnormality.

Keeper's responsibilities

The duty of care includes a suitable enclosure, food and water. However, it also includes the ability to assess the welfare of animals in your care.

Animals need to be provided with wholesome food. The outcomes of a balanced diet include the maintenance of good body condition and normal activity:

Understanding behaviour 

Animals with very poor welfare may become withdrawn and show a reduction in behaviour. Similarly, poor welfare can also lead to repetitive behaviours, which can be misinterpreted as endearing individual characteristics.

Specialist keepers of primates should provide for all their animals’ needs, and achieve all their welfare outcomes.

Keepers should have the ability to assess all welfare outcomes for all their animals, recognise when each is and is not being met, and promptly remedy any shortfalls, including consulting relevant experts where necessary. Keepers need a thorough understanding of the behaviour, biology and ecology of the species concerned. Advice should be sought from specialists in these disciplines.

Consideration should also be given to the age, size, condition, physiological, reproductive and health status of individual animals.

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