Macaques are probably the most commonly kept pet primates in Asia. Despite being illegal in many countries throughout the region, the practice is common and often tolerated. Rescue centres are overburdened with macaques and full beyond capacity, and in addition may lack the resources and expertise to properly care for the animals in their charge. This means they may turn away confiscated macaques, making enforcement, where laws exist, difficult. Rescue centers and the authorities sometimes choose to release ex-pet macaques inappropriately, putting the local environment and the welfare of the released individuals and local wildlife at risk, and causing or worsening any negative interactions between local people and macaques.
Macaques, like all non-human primates, suffer intensely when kept as pets. Maternal deprivation, inappropriate foods, and unsuitable social and physical environments result in lasting psychological and physiological damage. Most pet primates in Asian countries are wild-caught, whether intentionally (for the pet trade or as byproducts of the wild meat trade) or unintentionally (e.g. caught in a snare set to trap a different animal species).
The keeping of pet macaques is not only a welfare problem for the monkeys, but it also presents a real danger to the humans involved. Whether raised in the wild or in captivity, monkeys are wild animals. As they approach adulthood, they are increasingly likely to bite, scratch or attack if kept in close quarters in constant contact with humans. As infants, they may be pliable and easy to handle but as they mature, the behaviour of pet monkeys is predictably unpredictable - presenting a particular danger to children or other pets with whom they come into contact.
Apart from the risk of attack, disease can easily be passed between macaques and humans (and vice versa) when there is close contact. Such diseases include the Simian Herpes B virus which is thought to be highly prevalent amongst macaques. Transmission to humans is rare, but deadly.
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Ending the primate pet trade: legislation
While illegal in some non-habitat countries, the practice is legal in others, and in places (for example, certain US states) is entirely unregulated. There is no evidence of a large-scale international trade in wild-caught macaques as pets, although CITES regulations would permit such trade under certain circumstances. Legislation varies amongs Asian countries. In the absence of proper enforcement, even the strictest legislation may not be effective. Enforcement requires sufficiently resourced, trained and motivated officials and a high level of public support.
Well-intentioned people worldwide keep monkeys as pets. Within primate habitat countries, there may be long traditions of monkey keeping. Opportunities may be frequent (for example, when an infant monkey’s mother is killed as a result of crop foraging, or appears for sale in a local market). The extent to which the concept of animal welfare is developed and important varies between countries and cultures.
Pet monkeys - often macaques - frequently appear in the international press, in viral videos, in films and television shows, dressed in human clothing, eating human foods, and in close proximity to human families. It’s not always obvous just how damaging and inappropriate it is to keep a pet monkey. Research has indicated that seeing images of chimpanzees, lemurs, squirrel monkeys and capuchin monkeys in close proximity to humans (and in human-built environments) may increase human desire to keep one as a pet and misunderstand the threats that primates face in the wild. It is reasonable to suspect that these findings are applicable to macaques.
Educational programmes have the potential, in the long term, to drastically reduce the practice of macaque pet-keeping at its source. However, education is usually not a short-term fix and in places, the volume of macaques being kept in pets has reached crisis point.
It is not known how many SARCs house macaques across Asia (although see the AfA Sanctuaries and Rescue Centers Coalition, launched in 2022). What is certain is that wildlife rescue facilities and sanctuaries vary enormously in size, scope, expertise and resource availability. Worldwide, the terms “sanctuary” and “rescue center” are disputed and often remain legally undefined, and the terms can be used by facilities that harm animal welfare more than improving it. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries defines a sanctuary broadly as a facility that "rescues and provides shelter and care for animals that have been abused, injured, abandoned or are otherwise in need." This means:
no commercial trade;
no invasive or intrusive research;
no unescorted public visitation or contact in wild animal sanctuaries;
no removal of wild animals for exhibition, education, or research.
SARCs are not always willing or able to house macaques. The Endangered Primate Rescue Centre in Vietnam, for example, rescues and rehabilitates gibbons, langurs, and lorises, but does not have the capacity to handle macaques. Those centers that do house them (in Vietnam, primarily a network of government-run rescue centers) are often overfull, and faced with the choice of turning macaques away, or seriously compromising the welfare of existing residents in order to accommodate more.