Should Monkeys Be Pets?

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There’s no Solomon to decide the fate of a little monkey named Cookie who’s been caught in a heartbreaking tug-of-war.

On one side there’s Roman and Inna Flikshtein and their 13-year-old daughter, Michele – a family that bought a Diana monkey 5 years ago without knowing that her species was on the government’s endangered list. To them, Cookie is another child – cherished and lavished with care.

Poised against them are animal experts who say it’s not only illegal to take an endangered species as a pet, it’s downright cruel. They believe that Cookie’s best future lies in her return to a natural environment, and New York State officials have won a court ruling allowing them to take Cookie from the Flikshteins for placement in the Detroit Zoo.

The question of what’s best for Cookie has generated passionate national debate. Here’s a look at the issues:

Should Monkeys Be Pets? Yes, Say Monkey Lovers

Monkeys often thrive with humans, but only if their owners work hard to meet the animal’s challenging needs. So close to humans but so different, monkeys are capable of a broad range of emotions and prone to bonding closely with caregivers. Their antics can be endlessly amusing and their loyalty profound. “The positive side of owning a monkey is unconditional love,” said Lisa Whitaker, a Las Vegas resident who owns four Capuchins and teaches others to deliver good monkey care.

That’s what the Flikshteins hoped for when they bought 1-year-old Cookie from a pet store on Long Island, N.Y. And they say that’s how she developed. Cookie watches TV with the family, relishing music and animal shows. She joins in for the nightly treat of ice cream – rocky-road and cherry vanilla, if you please. When Michele comes home from school, Cookie pulls the girl by the hands toward the door, eager to go for a run.

“That’s what makes her special, how she takes you as one of her own. She knows what time you get home, and she always looks for you,” Flikshtein says. “She sleeps in a cage that’s very big and she’s got a little bed and a blanket.”

Cookie has also been rendered incapable of doing much damage: “When she was a 1 1/2 old, on the advice of the pet store owner and the breeder in Florida, we decided the best thing would be to spay her and remove the canines in the front, because they have a sharp bite.”

Should Monkeys Be Pets? No, Say Animal Advocates

Advocates for rare monkeys say they belong with their own kind and shouldn’t be wrenched from nature to satisfy human whims.

Dianas are talkative, curious and spend most of their time 140 feet in the air – in the high canopy of the African forests. They have black faces with white patches and beards. They also have a brownish patch of hair on their foreheads that looks like the headband worn by the hunting goddess, Diana, from whom they get their name.

“What if a little girl was captured by the apes and taken into the jungle, and she was found a few years later living with the apes? ” asked Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League, which runs a monkey sanctuary in Summerville, S.C. “You mean you wouldn’t want to take her back to human society?”

Most experts who study primates also say that monkeys like Cookie don’t function normally in captivity. “Trying to meet the nutritional, social and psychological needs of a primate that’s used to living with 30 or more of its kind is inappropriate,” says Dr. Craig Harms, who teaches veterinary medicine at the University of South Carolina at Raleigh.

Harms, who also has a doctorate in immunology, adds that monkeys face health risks in human society. “It’s more likely that a monkey will catch a human disease than a human contracting an illness from a monkey,” he says. “After 5 years with that family, it’s probably safe for her human owners, but that doesn’t say she’s safe from them.”

Even groups that support the domestication of monkeys warn would-be owners that they will have to change diapers and get used to battered furniture once a pet has grown to sexual maturity. Frequently, people who own monkeys throw in the towel after wrestling with their demanding, rambunctious behavior.

Should an Endangered Species be a Pet? No, Everyone Agrees

Dianas are listed among 20 species of monkeys and apes under the federal Endangered Species Act. Dianas earned their way onto the list because their forest habitats are fast disappearing from loggers. Taking them into captivity only worsens the species’ chances of survival.

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