Squirrel monkeys must contend with habitat loss, decreasing genetic diversity, and the curse of being cute.
O February 8, the Year of the Monkey will swing in, and in honor of the Chinese New Year, the possibility of some people acquiring an exotic pet like the squirrel monkey might become more popular than it has in the past.
“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 TV about monkeys throwing their feces? That’s a real thing. 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.
The animals have tiny, adorable heads with distinctly colored fur that makes them look like their wearing Mega Man 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 United States, 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 Columbia, 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 often 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,” says Stone. “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 as if they were made of lava. Open spaces cause the squirrel monkey to be vulnerable to jungle cats, snakes, and sharp-taloned birds. 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 was 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,” continues Stone. “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’ 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.