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Should Monkeys Be Pets?

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.

“We’ve worked very hard, the entire community of animal-care professionals, to protect these kinds of species,” says Colleen McCann, associate curator for primates at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

Flikshtein insists he didn’t willfully violate the law because he bought Cookie from a pet store owner who told him that she was legal. He’s vowed to go on a tour of contrition – teaching people the folly of taking endangered monkeys in as pets. “The best outcome would be if I could educate people on my own unfortunate situation,” Flikshtein says.

Flikshtein is seeking a special permit to allow Cookie to stay with his family. He argues that putting her in a zoo with other monkeys will not help to increase the Diana population because Cookie was spayed. Others say, however, that it would set a bad example to let one family to keep a rare animal. “Not that this family has bad intentions, it’s clear they care very much for the animal,” says McCann. “But we don’t want to give the impression that it’s okay for people to keep this animal as a pet. We can empathize with them, but we cannot do that.”

If Cookie is taken from the Flikshteins, plans call for her to stay at the Bronx Zoo in quarantine for a month. Then she’s to be sent to the Detroit Zoo, where officials say she’ll be introduced into a protected wildlife area shared with another Diana, a male.

McGreal, of the International Primate Protection League, says Cookie is likely to adapt if handled with loving care. She says standard procedure for newcomers calls for Cookie to be placed in a separate cage from the male monkey, with a screen between the cages so they can see each other and communicate but have no contact. That barrier is gradually diminished until the animals seem completely comfortable together. “Usually males and females don’t fight,” McGreal says.

“At her age, there’s a pretty good chance she still has the ability to adapt,” agrees Virginia Landau, who heads the Jane Goodall Institute’s ChimpanZoo, a research facility in Tucson, Ariz. “Not too many monkeys die of heartsickness, although it’s something to think about. I know they’ll introduce the other monkey gradually, but it would be nice if the family could stop by and see her regularly.”

Despite all that, Flikshtein is convinced that Cookie won’t survive in a zoo because she’s lost her sharp front teeth and her aggressive instincts. He predicts that she’ll die from another monkey’s attack or from a broken heart. “It’s hard to say who’ll be more broken-hearted, Cookie or her human family,” he says.

No Easy Answer

All in all, it’s a tough call even for some committed animal activists. Harms, the University of South Carolina vet, at first said he didn’t think Cookie belonged in a human home. Then, a colleague argued the Flikshteins’ case, stressing the fact that Cookie would be unable to reproduce in the wild.

“It’s really an unfortunate situation for both the animal and the family, and it might be better for this particular, individual animal to stay in the family it’s in now,” Harms said finally. But McGreal said that as painful as separation may be for the Flikshteins and Cookie, it’s for the best. “If you love your children, you let them go,” she said.