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Why we should give a monkey’s about monkeys

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

By Charlotte Armitage, a third year PhD student in Robbie McDonald’s research group. Charlotte is studying the effects of climate change on UK populations of hazel dormice; more specifically the role of torpor in the active season and what effects this will have on populations of hazel dormice under future climate scenarios. Charlotte has worked on various conservation projects abroad prior to undertaking her PhD, including wildlife-conflict in Tanzania, which are interests she pursues through her role as a postgraduate teaching assistant (PTA).

A few weeks ago I accompanied (as part of my PTA work) the undergraduates on Kimberley Hocking's third-year ‘Primate Conservation’ module on a field trip to the Monkey Sanctuary in Looe. Whilst many, myself included, envisioned a day of seeing some cute primates, we had a sobering experience when faced with the harsh realities of the UK pet trade.

Site tour: viewing the spacious enclosure built for enrichment and welfare


We started the day with a talk from the Monkey Sanctuary staff about the work that they do and the UK exotic pet trade. Many of us were shocked to learn that the keeping, trade, and breeding of exotic animals is completely legal in the UK; what is illegal is importing species. So, essentially, if you can source an animal in the UK then it is completely legal to keep it. The only licencing provision in place is The Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976. This law requires that private individuals who keep exotic pets hold a licence for these animals. The law, however, is written with public safety in mind, not animal welfare. There is also huge non-compliance: the Monkey Sanctuary estimates this at 82%, so the true number of exotic pets in the UK is almost impossible to gauge. For an idea of all the exotic pets that are being held privately in your area check out this interactive map from Born Free (which shows, among many other threatened species, that there are currently six clouded leopards and six cheetahs held privately in Cornwall!).


After learning about the UK pet trade we then met some of its victims and why the work of the Monkey Sanctuary is so important. They have approximately 35 primates in their care and the grim reality of what some of these monkeys have been through hits home as you walk around. Many have bald patches from over-grooming, exhibit behaviours associated with trauma, and several are missing tails. One of the most heartbreaking cases we learnt about was Joey, a capuchin who was kept in a tiny cage for 9 years and left on his own for 23 hours a day. This left him with a curved spine, the base of his spine and his tail fused together and bone disease so severe his limbs were transparent on x-ray. Cases like this signify why the work of the sanctuary is so important in providing specialist care. It was predicted that, with all his medical problems, Joey wouldn’t live long but with the dedication of the staff he lived for 13 years at the sanctuary until sadly his health problems became too much for him.

1. Jerry the marmoset; 2. Marmoset cage- not just too small, but also no floor, only bars. Jerry didn't know he could step on the ground when he first arrived.


In the afternoon we learnt just how much time and effort goes into providing specialist care to primates, care that is so often missing when they are kept in people’s homes due to inadequate space and education. Primates are complex animals that require social interaction and a lot of enrichment to keep them stimulated and happy. The group took part in an enrichment workshop in which they designed their own enrichment items for the monkeys so they could really think about the specific needs of different species and what might work in different enclosures. The undergraduates also got to make gum feeders for the marmosets; in the wild they eat a lot of sap and this is mimicked for them in this feeder.


During this workshop we also learned that with the growing popularity of marmosets, sadly all rescue places for them in the UK are currently full and many are having to be temporarily housed at places like garden centres as there is nowhere else safe for them to go. Students also had a go at improving one of the primate enclosures by fixing ropes and doing some garden clearance.


Call to Action

To end the suffering of animals like those at the Monkey Sanctuary the UK pet trade needs to end and laws need to change. There is a bill that was making its way through government; the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which charities like the Monkey Sanctuary were initially hoping would end the UK pet trade. Despite lobbying hard an outright ban on the private ownership of exotic pets hasn’t been achieved but the bill should significantly improve the welfare of those individuals in the trade and, in theory, the days of primates being kept in bird cages in people’s homes should be over. However, the bill has ground to a halt in recent months and isn’t being progressed through parliament so it still isn’t law. If you would like to see this bill progress please sign this petition and/or write to your local MP.

Capuchin monkey: the road to recovery is long

The Monkey Sanctuary does such important work lobbying for law changes like this one but also caring for the victims of the UK primate trade. Sadly, however, they are at real risk of closure.

With financial loss due to covid and the cost of living crisis they are running on their very last reserves.

If you want to do something to help please consider donating to their appeal to save the sanctuary https://www.monkeysanctuary.org/sos/.

Exeter university primate conservation students

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