Monday, August 20, 2012

Exotic critters

Hi friends!

I just got back from Cancun, where I was at the International Primatological Society Congress, which is an academic meeting for people who study primates. It was great to see friends and learn about really important work surrounding primates and primate habitat conservation.

Anyhow, when I first arrived and was walking from my hotel to the conference center, I was very saddened to be asked by a young man if I would like to have my photo taken with his monkey- he had a beautiful juvenile squirrel monkey on a rope sitting on his shoulder, on the main drag among a bazillion lights and traffic and all things Cancun. "Photo with the monkey, seƱorita?"

The Cancun strip. The arrow is pointing to the dude who asked me if I wanted
my picture taken with his juvie squirrel monkey on a rope.

This was not the only primate I saw in this situation. There were three other capuchin monkeys, several very large snakes, iguanas, and although I didn't see it, I heard there was a baby tiger on a chain on Friday night. And clearly, I did not see all the exotic animals in this situation in Cancun. So, why not pay a couple bucks and get your pic taken with an adorable cheeky little monkey?

Sigh. There are so many reasons. I will gloss over these rather than explore in detail, for brevity's sake but also because they are horrible and simply too hurty for me to go through. Here are the biggies:

1. These animals are captured as babies in the wild. Sadly, their monkey families generally don't make it out of the altercations, simply because they try to protect/save the babies and other family members.

2. Wild animals can be sometimes tamed, but being tame is very different than animals which are domesticated (like cats, dogs, and livestock), and accustomed to living alongside humans. Furthermore, these wild animals can be a serious problem when they reach sexual maturity and will happily eat your face, instead of doing what ever their owners want.

3. Once the monkeys reach "eat your face" territory (ie are all grown up), 9 times out of 10 they are no longer suitable for tourist photos, and they are disposed of. Meanwhile, a new baby is captured at the expense of the new baby's family.

4. Lots of animals have very complicated social lives and life-long bonds in the wild. For example, squirrel monkeys can live in groups a hundred individuals. The females stay in the group where they were born, and when males reach maturity, they transfer to other groups. So females have moms/daughters/aunts/cousins etc who they live with their entire lives. Males often transfer with their male relatives and also form long-term friendships. These monkeys often travel beside, sleep with, and/or generally hang out with their best buddies. Thus, its really sad to see intelligent social animals such as this living alone, on a rope, so that tourists can get a photo. And, all of this doesn't even touch on living conditions, treatment, appropriate diet, and other daily concerns for these critters. It breaks my heart to see a young monkey, who should be in a beautiful forest playing with cousins and sleeping with their moms, on a street corner, alone.

Check out this short video of a couple of squirrel monkeys in the wild:

ARKive video - Red-backed squirrel monkey - identification
A far cry from life in Cancun.

Since many of these animals are endangered it is technically illegal to keep them, but in developing nations or those in political/social turmoil, laws are generally not enforced. Really, the only thing we can do is stop the demand. So please, don't ever pay to have your photo taken with a wild animal on the streets of Cancun, or anywhere you may encounter a dude with monkey or jaguar or kinkajou or whatever. Or for that matter, please don't give money to any person or organization with animals who are not well cared for or obtained in an unethical manner.

Tonyia mentioned feeding a giraffe, which was likely at a zoo. Visiting reputable zoos and interacting with suitable animals is totally different. Animals at zoos may have originally been part of the illegal wild animal pet trade, but are likely in a "best case" scenario for ex-captive ex-wild animals. At a good facility, keepers can select animals that enjoy interacting with people and train the animals (using positive re-enforcement) how to interact appropriately with the public. Interactions are at the animal's choice and can be great for education about animals as well as providing cool experiences for animal lovers.

My area of expertise is primates, but many of the same sentiments apply to other animals. Seriously, I can't think of an acceptable or ethical reason why some guy has a baby tiger on a chain in downtown Cancun. Or think of exotic birds, such as parrots or macaws which are pair-bonded and can live for over a hundred years. These animals are clearly much better off living in a forest with their life partner, than in a busy city making money for someone with little knowledge of their emotional and physiological needs or concern for their long-term welfare.

Bottom line? Use your judgement, put yourself in the animal's position, think of the animal's quality of life, and tell your friends not to have their photos taken with sweet little monkeys or tigers or whatever wild animal while in exotic destinations!

Thanks for caring!

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