It's true - lemurs and many other primates are adorable! And you've seen photos of people playing with these charming animals on social media, in movies and T.V. shows, even on greeting cards! Many primates are bred in captivity and exploited as unique pets, surrogate children, or status symbols. There are approximately 15,000 privately owned primates in the United States. They can be purchased through pet stores, newspaper and internet ads, and even at flea markets. A diverse array of species is found in the pet trade, from tiny marmosets to the most dangerous of all primates, chimpanzees. Lemurs make up a large percentage of the pet primates in the US.
Unfortunately, lemurs and other primates make terrible pets. All primates, including lemurs, are dangerous animals that can inflict serious and life-threatening injuries. They are wild animals, not domesticated, and their natural instincts remain very much intact even in captivity. Wild animals have sudden episodes of aggression that cannot be controlled or untrained. Upon sexual maturity, pet primates will begin attacking. Children are especially vulnerable since primates are naturally inclined to establish dominance hierarchies. It is inhumane to remove their teeth and even small primates can inflict significant injuries and transmit serious diseases. Many of the lemur residents at EPF's Prosimian Sanctuary have attacked humans, in some cases causing serious injury. EPF staff only have protected contact with the sanctuary residents - meaning there is always some kind of barrier between the lemurs and the staff - and receive extensive safety training. Protective equipment, specially-designed habitats and barriers, and husbandry protocols developed by primate experts all contribute to the safety of staff and residents.
Another reason that lemurs are pets to regret is that they pose a risk of disease. Nonhuman primates are our closest living relatives, thus many serious diseases can be transferred between human and non-human primates, including the common cold, influenza, internal parasites, measles, yellow fever, hepatitis, tuberculosis, herpes B virus, monkeypox, Ebola virus, Marburg virus, and Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV, the nonhuman primate version of HIV). Some of these diseases can be fatal to humans. Illnesses that typically only cause minor symptoms in humans can be deadly to nonhuman primates. Preliminary research based on genetic markers suggests that lemurs may be susceptible to Covid-19 and potentially able to spread the virus to humans.
Many pet primates end up confiscated, abandoned, or euthanized after their owners are no longer able to handle the financial, legal, or physical burdens of caring for an active, intelligent, and frequently aggressive pet. There is tremendous demand for sanctuary space because so many private owners have learned the hard way that wild animals like lemurs do not belong in human environments. Other reputable sanctuaries either don’t accept prosimians or are at or near capacity. EPF's Prosimian Sanctuary is the only sanctuary in the US dedicated solely to providing behavioral rehabilitation and lifelong care for prosimians. Part of EPF's mission is to educate others on the dangers and risks of primate pet ownership to discourage this practice.
Don't be fooled by the cute face; this lemur has sharp teeth! Photo by Jessie Hersh taken at EPF's Prosimian Sanctuary.