One winter when my mom was about eight years old, my grandfather brought home a squirrel monkey. She had no idea where he got it (he was always bringing home bizarre attractions—one time a cotton candy machine, another time homing pigeons), but as she remembers it, the primate stayed with them for two miserable weeks.
“The poor little thing was cold, scared, and wanted nothing to do with us,” she told me recently. “He hid in the corner of his cage and screamed whenever anyone came near him.
Eventually, my grandmother put her foot down and gave the classic ultimatum: “Either the monkey goes, or I go.” The little primate was soon bartered off to some other eccentric for god knows what.
The problem with the story of my grandfather’s squirrel monkey—OK, one of the many problems—is that it is not all that unique. During the 1960s and '70s, large numbers of squirrel monkeys were imported into the United States from Peru and Colombia, and, even today, it’s legal in many parts of this country to own one. In some parts of South America, squirrel monkey pets are not out of the ordinary—even though, as my mother can attest, they do not make good housemates.
“I would never want one in my house,” says Anita Stone, a primatologist at Eastern Michigan University who has studied squirrel monkeys in Brazil for more than a decade. “They’re very destructive.”
Of the many primates you could have for a pet, squirrel monkeys—of which there are at least five species—require an insane amount of care and attention. You have to entertain and stimulate them and then clean up the messes they make when you fail to sufficiently entertain and stimulate them. And because they’re social animals, it’s recommended you keep more than one or none at all.
Oh, and that thing you’ve seen on television about monkeys throwing their feces? That’s a real thing. My mom remembers it vividly. You can also expect frequent masturbation. If you aren’t cool with that, then don’t get a monkey, advises petmonkeyinfo.com. And yet, people still want them in their homes.
I recently wrote about the drills of Bioko Island, monkeys under threat of extinction because they’re big and meaty. But for monkeys the opposite end of the body-size spectrum is fraught with peril too. The largest squirrel monkey weighs only about as much as a quart of milk. The animals have tiny, adorable heads with distinctly colored fur that makes them look like they’re wearing MegaMan helmets. And I admit: They look all the world like something you’d want to snuggle up with on the sofa.
And therein lies the problem. One reason squirrel monkeys are in trouble is because they’re small, cute, and, by all appearances, cuddly. In reality, only two of those things are true.
There are dozens of primate rescue and rehabilitation centers in the U.S., and, big surprise, squirrel monkeys make regular appearances. That’s a shame for more than a few reasons, not least of which is the fact that several species are already listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as needing protection. Indeed, some of the biggest exporters, like Colombia, have made it illegal to send squirrel monkeys abroad.
Due to the nature of the black market, it’s hard to say just how big squirrel monkey demand is, but the pet trade’s practices are definitely bad news for wild populations. According to Stone, poachers shoot squirrel monkey mothers to get at the babies that cling to their backs. Oftentimes, the little ones die within the first few weeks of captivity because they haven’t yet been weaned from their mother’s milk. These kidnappings and killings are especially troubling because squirrel monkeys have one of the slowest reproductive rates of any primate.
“In some populations, females only give birth every two years, and they take three to four years to mature,” Stone says. “So the death of a mother is a big loss. It affects the reproductive capability of the population.”
What’s more, squirrel monkeys that are lucky enough to remain in the wild are remarkably bad at adapting to environmental threats like habitat loss and fragmentation from logging, mining, ranching, and other forms of development. Squirrel monkeys naturally treat open spaces—where they’re most vulnerable to jungle cats, snakes, and sharp-taloned birds—as if they were made of lava. So while a new road or clearing for telephone lines might not be much of a barrier for larger animals, like howler monkeys or jaguars, for squirrel monkeys any break in the foliage longer than seven feet or so might as well be the Grand Canyon (if the Grand Canyon were full of lava).
“Where I work, there are certain areas of the forest that have been cut, and they just don’t go there at all,” Stone says. “I’ve never seen a squirrel monkey cross an open area.” Worse still, the monkeys often try to make use of power lines to bridge the gaps, which can lead to a grisly end.
Habitat loss and fragmentation also limit the amount of food accessible to squirrel monkeys. But that’s not all. A study of one Costa Rican population found that, when forests were cleared, genetic diversity was significantly reduced. As if lack of habitat and wildlife trafficking weren’t enough, squirrel monkeys may now have to deal with inferior genes too.
Squirrel monkeys are cute. No one will contest that. But they’re also wild animals that already have enough environmental problems on their plate without having to worry about being whisked off to places like Pittsburgh. They belong in a Central or South American jungle, not perched atop your recliner masturbating or getting ready to throw some poo.
“People still ask me, ‘Oh, can you bring a monkey back for me?’” says Stone, incredulously. “And I say, ‘No! That’s exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to do!’”