As we talked our way through welfare, conservation, legal considerations, political strategies and the influence of external factors on the trade in these animals, it was heartening to find that, without exception, it was agreed that primates should not be kept as pets. With speaker panels and an audience made up of individuals from a variety of professional backgrounds, including the zoo industry, it was refreshing and encouraging to find that those of us who so often find ourselves on "opposite sides of the fence," as it were, were in agreement about our rejection of keeping these complex, highly sentient animals in domestic settings.
We identified a number of obstacles that must be overcome if we are to succeed in ending the cruel trade in these animals and we discussed the mechanisms by which any future prohibition might be achieved. It was a hugely beneficial discussion which I hope will lead to positive action for primates going forward.
But, as with most things, the devil is in the detail. While we all agreed that primates should not be kept as pets, a few dissenting voices argued that some private, or specialist, keepers kept primates in conditions which were equivalent to those of a "good zoo."
Notwithstanding my opposition to zoos and my firm belief that no captive situation can provide fully for the needs of primates (or any other wild animal, for that matter), I was concerned to see these arguments introducing grey areas into what had started as a black and white issue. Specifically, a vast grey area emerged when trying to define the line between a "specialist private keeper" and a "pet owner." This is made all the more complicated by the fact that, while often talked about by those that support the continuance of the trade in primates as pets, evidence of the existence of these private keepers who keep their animals in such fine conditions as to be beyond reproach has not yet come to light.
A colleague who works for a primate welfare organization put it very concisely in a conversation with me recently:
"There is ample evidence to prove that primates do not thrive when kept in private hands but, despite all the talk to the contrary, simply no evidence to suggest that they do."
There was talk of the "motivation" of keepers. Some delegates suggested that those keeping monkeys for their own amusement should not be allowed to keep them but those keeping monkeys for educational or conservation purposes might be granted an exception. For me, this overcomplicates a very simple matter. If an animal is unsuited to captivity, then the motivation of the person that keeps that animal is of no importance. After all, the experience of the monkey held captive in unnatural surroundings, unnatural social groupings and far, far from his or her natural environment does not change based upon the motivation of his or her captor.
There was the suggestion that breeders supplying zoos with monkeys should be allowed to continue so that the work of zoos was not impacted. [This, in itself, raises concerns about the ongoing link between private breeders and the zoo industry which is perhaps not for discussion here, but worth flagging].