The government has laid a draft statutory instrument (SI) under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 intended to bring in a licensing scheme to provide “the highest welfare standards” for primates in England.[1] This, the government says, will have the effect of ending the keeping of primates as pets in domestic settings.

1. Pet primate welfare

There are thousands of pet primates in the UK, with a 2016 report from the RSPCA estimating the number at 5,000.[2] The most commonly kept primates are marmosets, followed by capuchins, tamarins and squirrel monkeys. Some primates live up to 40 years. The RSPCA explains the welfare issues with keeping primates domestically:

Primates are highly intelligent, long-lived animals who form intricate social relationships with each other and experience emotions, and suffer, in a similar way to humans […] [M]eeting the complex physical and behavioural needs of these wild animals in captivity is incredibly difficult.[3]

The RSPCA found that primates kept in domestic settings were often isolated, kept in cramped, inappropriate housing like parrot cages, and weaned much earlier than would be natural, causing behavioural problems later in life for the infants separated from their mothers.[4]

The Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall report that every pet primate they have rescued came to them with behavioural problems, which include rocking, pacing, obsessive grooming and biting themselves. Many primates also present with metabolic bone disease and tooth problems, linked to vitamin deficiencies caused by poor diets, lack of sunlight, and being weaned too early.[5]

In common with all pet owners, primate keepers must comply with the duty of care in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, by preventing unnecessary suffering and taking all reasonable steps to meet their animal’s needs. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published a code of practice for the welfare of privately kept non-human primates.[6] This is non-statutory guidance but has been used in prosecutions under the 2006 act to evidence when standards have not been met.[7]

Some primates, including capuchins, must be licensed under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.[8] However, there is evidence of poor compliance, with the Monkey Sanctuary reporting that 82% of UK owners whose ex-pets were rehomed with them did not hold a licence for all or part of the animal’s life. Other primates such as marmosets, tamarins and squirrel monkeys do not require licensing under the 1976 act.[9]

2.1 Clever monkeys

Marmosets, the UK’s most commonly kept pet primates, are highly intelligent and have complex social lives.[10] They have been observed engaging with each other for up to 30 minutes at a time in social “vocal turn-taking”, making their interactions sound more like a conversation than most animals’ overlapping or coordinated calls.[11] Marmosets have also demonstrated object permanence and problem solving skills,[12] and the ability to remember skills learnt years previously but not recently used.[13] They are raised by both parents as well as wider family groups, engaging in play through their childhoods.

3. Plans for a ban

In response to a 2020–21 Defra consultation on keeping primates as pets in England, 98.7% (4,450) of respondents expressed support for a ban on keeping, breeding, acquiring, gifting, selling or otherwise transferring primates, apart from to persons licensed to keep primates to zoo-level standards.[14] The consultation followed a call for evidence in 2019–20.[15]

Measures to end the keeping of primates as pets were included in the government’s ‘Action plan for animal welfare’ and formed part of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which the government decided not to progress in the 2022–23 session. Mark Spencer, the minister for food, farming and fisheries at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said “scope-creep” of the wide-ranging bill was behind the decision and committed to bringing forward some of the bill’s measures individually, including measures related to primates.[16]

Defra consulted again in 2023, providing proposed standards of care and highlighting differences between the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill provisions and the proposed SI.[17] Differences included that licences are to be granted for a maximum of three years rather than six, and penalties would align with those set out in the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

4. Primate licence regulations

The new regulations would not apply to animals being kept under licences based on the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 or the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.[18]

The regulations would require people keeping primates to be licensed by the local authority. Before granting a primate licence, the local authority would need to inspect the premises and determine their suitability under licence conditions.

Licensing is expected to come into force in 2026, subject to parliamentary processes, with existing keepers having two years from the SI being approved to reach compliance with the licensing conditions.[19]

The SI would give the local authority the power to issue rectification notices, instructing keepers to become compliant with welfare standards. If keepers failed to act on rectification notices, failed to allow inspection, or did not comply with licensing conditions, the local authority would revoke the licence.

Licence conditions would include:

  • nutrition and feeding requirements, including an individually tailored diet for each primate based on expert guidance and reviewed at least every 12 months
  • daily monitoring for signs of pain, suffering, injury, disease or abnormal behaviour
  • registering with a vet who can monitor the welfare of each primate, as well as administer medicines, vaccines and parasite control, and provide assistance in an emergency
  • maintaining detailed records of the primates, as well as plans for emergency evacuation, temporary isolation, death or escape of the primate
  • breeding can only be done under vet supervision and in accordance with a vet’s health and management plan
  • mothers and infants being kept together until a named vet advises separation is acceptable

The conditions also include requirements for the primates’ environments. Enclosures would have to include indoor and outdoor areas, with shelter, shade and natural planting. Primates would need to be given space for privacy. The enclosure conditions are designed to encourage natural behaviours, including facilities for climbing and hanging, and organic material and platforms for nesting.

Enrichment activities and environmental quality would also be requirements, with consideration to light, temperature, cleanliness and noise appropriate to the occupants.

The regulations would also require the primates to be kept in social groups, unless there is a welfare reason for temporary isolation, with human handling kept to a minimum. There are also conditions related to transportation.

5. Reaction to proposals

When considering the keeping of primates as part of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, the Labour Party attempted several amendments, including one to remove licensing provisions in the bill, aiming to replace them with a complete ban. Labour also proposed amendments so that inspections would have to be undertaken by expert vets.[20]

The RSPCA welcomed the proposed licensing system, and said:

We look forward to working with the UK government to ensure that the proposed licensing system can be adequately enforced, and will be robust enough to effectively protect the welfare of primates that remain with private keepers until the end of their natural lives.[21]

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has urged the devolved nations to also adopt the policy. The BVA also said that it is vital that the proposed licensing system “goes far enough and the ban is able to be properly enforced”.[22] The BVA encouraged the government to work with veterinary and zoological organisations “to get this right”.[23]

The Primate Society of Great Britain (PSGB) also opposes primates being kept as pets, but highlights that if private keepers cannot keep their primates “appropriate measures need to be put in place for the protection, rescue and rehabilitation of the individual animals currently held as pets”.[24]

The Animal Welfare (Primate Licences) (England) Regulations 2023 are subject to the draft affirmative procedure so require the approval of both Houses of Parliament before becoming law.[25]


Cover image by Adair Costa on Pexels.

References

  1. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘Government delivers on promise to ban keeping of primates’, 14 December 2023. Return to text
  2. RSPCA, ‘Do you give a monkey’s?: The need for a ban on pet primates’, 2016, p 7. Return to text
  3. As above, p 4. Return to text
  4. As above, pp 4–5. Return to text
  5. As above, p 5. Return to text
  6. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘Code of practice for the welfare of privately kept non-human primates’, 9 April 2013. Return to text
  7. RSPCA, ‘Do you give a monkey’s?: The need for a ban on pet primates’, 2016, p 9. Return to text
  8. As above, p 10. Return to text
  9. As above. Return to text
  10. Hayley Ash et al, ‘Early learning in the common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus): Behaviour in the family group is related to pre-adolescent cognitive performance’, American Journal of Primatology, 2020, vol 82, issue 8. Return to text
  11. ScienceDaily ‘Marmoset monkeys know polite conversation’, 17 October 2013. Return to text
  12. Hayley Ash et al, ‘Early learning in the common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus): Behaviour in the family group is related to pre-adolescent cognitive performance’, American Journal of Primatology, 2020, vol 82, issue 8. Return to text
  13. Wired, ‘A marmoset never forgets’, 28 April 2014. Return to text
  14. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘Primates as pets in England: Consultation outcome—summary of responses and government response’, 8 June 2021. Return to text
  15. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘Welfare of primates as pets in England: Call for evidence’, 12 December 2020. Return to text
  16. HC Hansard, 25 May 2023, cols 494–6. Return to text
  17. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘Licensing of specialist private primate keepers in England: Consultation document’, June 2023. Return to text
  18. Animal Welfare (Primate Licences) (England) Regulations 2023. Return to text
  19. As above. Return to text
  20. HC Hansard, 16 November 2021, cols 79–114. Return to text
  21. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, ‘Government delivers on promise to ban keeping of primates’, 14 December 2023. Return to text
  22. Vet Times, ‘Pet primate ban ‘must be properly enforceable’, government warned’, 20 December 2023. Return to text
  23. As above. Return to text
  24. Primate Society of Great Britain, ‘PSGB statement regarding primates as pets’, June 2022. Return to text
  25. UK Parliament, ‘Statutory instruments: Draft affirmative’, accessed 9 February 2024. Return to text