International spider monkey trade
The black handed spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) is listed as ENDANGERED by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species. The species is at high risk of extinction due to external forces such as habitat loss, fragmentation and the illegal pet trade. Spider monkeys have a lengthy gestation period of between 226-232 days and infants can rely on their mothers for over 1 year after birth. Therefore spider monkeys are more vulnerable to threats than faster reproducing species as population recovery takes significant time.
International wildlife trade is regulated because the black-handed spider monkey is listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) as threatened with extinction if international trade is not closely controlled (Appendix II). Although Mexico does not export spider monkeys, compliance with CITES does not impact national trade. It is the National trade and availability of native spider monkeys for pets that is detrimental to species survival.
Spider monkey trade within Mexico
Spider monkeys captured to be sold as pets have a traumatic start to life. The only way to capture an infant spider monkey is by killing its mother, from whom it relies milk and social comfort. Captured spider monkeys are often sold in southeast Mexico and taken to the main cities. Transportation is stressful, often with no water or food supply. If the infant survives it is sold as pet on the black market.
Research in primate pets in Mexico City revealed that approximately 67% of primate pets were spider monkeys (Duarte & Estrada 2003). Native wild pet species are common due to their availability and low price. The number of pet spider monkeys highlights how severe the problem is. Rates of native species extraction is a serious threat to this primate species.
Spider monkeys, as with other primate species, are social animals with complex behaviour. Their biological needs cannot be met by humans. In the wild spider monkeys have a complex social strategy called ‘fission-fusion’ whereby individuals, socialize with a variety of different monkeys each day. As a pet, spider monkeys are unable to socialize or move like they would in the wild. Having a spider monkey as a pet restricts adequate locomotion, resulting in distorted abilities to climb and travel. The lack of social companion of the same species results in the expression of abnormal behaviours. Abnormal behaviours are considered to be a psychological mechanism to cope with unsuitable environmental conditions and are highly associated to poor captive management. Examples of abnormal behaviours in pet monkeys include pacing and hair pulling. As monkeys reach maturation their strength increases, hormonal changes instigate dominance displays, and owners struggle to manage adult monkeys. Many adult pet spider monkeys are abandoned due to incidences of aggression. Household hazards risk monkey safety and documented cases of monkey injury and even death include electrocution, asphyxia, skin burns, traffic accidents and injuries from domesticated animals such as dogs. The similarities between primates and humans are often appealing to monkey owners, yet our comparative biology enables easy transmission of zoonotic diseases. Not only monkeys succumb to human illness: humans are also at risk of contracting monkey-derived diseases.
It is difficult to assess the number of pet spider monkeys or other primate species in Mexico. As with many other countries, the documentation of this pet trade does not include the illegally obtained individuals (Soulsbury et al. 2009). Although Mexican officials sometimes confiscate pet monkeys, these must be re-homed and zoos are over capacity. Privately run sanctuaries, like Ecoparque el Fenix, provide a safe environment for unwanted, donated and confiscated monkeys. It is then the responsibility of such organizations to facilitate their rehabilitation.
Anaya-Huertes, C. & Mondragon-Ceballos, R. (1997) Social Behaviour of Black-Handed Spider Monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) Reared as Home Pets. International Journal of Primatology. 19 (4) : 767-784.
Duartes-Quiroga, A. & Estrada, A. (2003) Primates as Pets in Mexico City: An Assessment of the Species Involved, Source of Origin, and General Aspects of Treatment. American Journal of Primatology. 61: 53-60.
Soulsbury, C. D., Iossa, G., Kennell, S. & Harris, S. (2009) The Welfare and Suitability of Primates as Pets. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 12: 1-20.