There is no doubt that chimpanzee babies are adorable, and we can understand why people initially want them as pets. Sadly, life in a human home is detrimental to chimpanzees, with long-term effects on behavior, health, and psychological well-being.
Infant chimpanzees sold in the pet trade are taken from their mothers at birth, which can be traumatic for both the mother and the baby. Like humans, chimp babies are virtually helpless in their infancy, unlike other mammals who learn to walk within days of their birth. For chimpanzees, the first five years of life are critical for social bonding, learning from their mothers, and healthy psychological development. Chimpanzees separated from their mothers during infancy often develop abnormal behaviors such as repetitive rocking and excessive hair plucking, as well as anxiety or depression.
Although chimpanzee babies are cute, they soon grow out of their adorable stage, and the realities of owning a wild animal emerge. Chimpanzees are not domesticated or tamed. Once chimps reach around 8 years old, they become too strong to handle and pose a risk to humans if not housed in a safe enclosure. Chimps are approximately four times stronger than humans, and rough play or a temper tantrum that wouldn’t harm another chimpanzee could severely injure humans. For this reason, many pet chimpanzees end up in cages, often alone, before they reach 10 years old. With a life expectancy of up to 50 years, pet chimpanzees may face living for decades in small cages.
Meeting the needs of chimpanzees in captivity is no simple task. Pet chimpanzees, like all captive chimpanzees, need the companionship of other chimps, extensive veterinary care by a qualified chimpanzee vet, a variety of enrichment to keep their minds active, and expansive enclosure space that allows them to express natural behaviors. Meeting these needs is expensive and time consuming, and many pet owners come to realize they cannot provide the quality of care that is required. Sadly, choices for these pet owners are limited. Sanctuaries are not always able to take in pet chimps, as many are full and have waiting lists. Some pet owners run out of options and sell their chimps to unaccredited roadside zoos or breeding facilities. No matter where they end up, a pet chimpanzee who is suddenly forced to leave their life with their human family is often initially confused and unhappy. The ones who do make it to sanctuary often struggle to live with other chimpanzees, as they never learned how chimps behave from their mothers. It can take many months and special care to help a former pet chimp learn how to be a chimpanzee.
Pet chimpanzees sometimes face tragic endings, such as the story of Travis. A 13 year old chimpanzee, Travis, was living as a pet in Connecticut after a short career in Old Navy and Coca Cola commercials. In 2009, Travis attacked a friend of his owner, badly mauling her. He then escaped his home and was shot and killed by police to protect the public. The story received a great deal of media attention and raised awareness about the dangers of keeping chimpanzees as pets.
With the 2015 U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision to reclassify all chimpanzees as Endangered, we are hopeful that the exploitation of this highly threatened species will cease. Chimpanzees deserve the opportunity to grow up with the comfort of their mothers, the ability to express natural behaviors, companionship with their peers, freedom from exploitation, and dignified retirement in accredited sanctuaries.