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Primates as Pets

Volume 624: debated on Monday 24 April 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Griffiths.)

It is a pleasure to be here to see off another day, Mr Deputy Speaker. At the outset, I wish to thank Dr Alison Cronin, the director of Monkey World, the international primate rescue centre in my constituency, which assists Governments around the world to stop the smuggling, abuse and neglect of primates. Her time and input into this debate have been invaluable.

It seems barely credible in this age of enlightened animal welfare provisions and animal rights, but it is still entirely legal for someone to walk into a pet shop and buy any one of 66 species of monkey as easily as they can buy a goldfish in a plastic bag. These monkeys—all types of marmoset, tamarin and squirrel monkey—are snatched away from their families as infants and sold in birdcages for well over £1,000 each. There are no licensing demands or special regulations for their care. The pages of Loot, for example, are full of advertisements for these animals. A brief search of the internet shows that it is awash with monkeys for sale, supplements for their diet and advice on looking after them. According to Dr Cronin, at least half these advertisements are scams. Many demand large amounts of money up front for vet checks and transportation, all too often for non-existent monkeys.

Although not all breeders are unscrupulous, the public and the primates need to be protected. It is a fact that most buyers are well meaning, wanting only an entertaining and lovable pet that can be fed on scraps from the table, but the truth is that almost no domestic owner is equipped to look after primates properly. When, months after buying one of these tiny creatures, they call for help because their monkey is lying on the floor of the cage crying, it is far too late. Most south American monkeys—all 66 species for sale come from there—are extremely sensitive to a lack of vitamin D, and the lack of sunlight in a British birdcage deprives them of this crucial nutrient, as we might expect. Without it, they can, almost overnight, develop rickets. Although, with the right treatment in expert hands, rickets can be reversed, the agonising skeletal damage is permanent. Even without rickets, a marmoset frequently becomes aggressive and/or withdrawn, as its unnatural confinement takes hold, with it starved of its natural habitat and unable to mix socially with other monkeys.

It is always a pleasure to listen to anything the hon. Gentleman has to say. He and I agree on many things, the first of which is that we need to be out of Europe. However, in this instance, does he think that we should follow the lead of the 15 European countries that have banned keeping primates as pets, because they have shown the way? I think that he and I agree on that, too.

It is always a pleasure to be in the same place as the hon. Gentleman, as we are in this debate. I will come on to address that point and a possible solution, which the Minister has heard before, having kindly agreed to me myself and Dr Cronin.

As I was saying, there is no doubt that these monkeys are suffering. Let us compare the circumstances in a cage in someone’s kitchen with what happens in the wild, where marmosets pair-bond for life and bring up extended, exuberant families, and every monkey participates in caring for the younger ones. They are never alone and they live for 15 years. Tragically, barely weaned infants are handed over by unscrupulous breeders who rely partly for their profits on the fact that marmosets almost always bear twins, after a gestation period of about four months. The males are sold on, while the females are kept for breeding. They may survive physically, but their captivity is nothing short of torture. Remember, these are primates: they share more than 90% of their DNA with their human cousins—us. That proportion rises to approximately 98.6% for chimps and bonobos, which are our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree, according to the Smithsonian Institution. Such treatment of chimps and bonobos would be considered immoral; indeed, there are laws to protect them.

Almost exactly a year ago, Dr Cronin and I, along with the former Genesis front man Peter Gabriel, delivered a petition bearing 110,000 signatures to Downing Street. The UK primate pet trade petition asked the Government to change the law so that all monkeys would be guaranteed a standard of care, as is already mandatory in zoos and wildlife parks. The Minister kindly said that he would put forward a law for a regulatory system that would ensure appropriate care. Since then, regrettably, we have heard nothing. That is understandable, given all the recent political upheavals—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has been extremely busy—but according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs code of practice working group, the number of primates kept as pets in the UK is thought to be between 1,200 and 5,000.

Dr Cronin says she has seen an “exponential explosion” in the British monkey pet trade, with ever-growing numbers of monkeys needing rescuing. In the past 30 years, Monkey World in Dorset has rescued 106 pet-trade monkeys. Of those, 53 have been rescued since 2012, in an accelerating catastrophe caused mainly, Dr Cronin suspects, by social media. Many rescued primates come from decent, well-meaning but inexperienced owners who were duped into thinking they had bought pets that were easy to look after. In a recent police raid, Dr Cronin was asked to rescue a tiny infant marmoset that was freezing to death in a bird cage in a darkened city flat. She says that that is proof that the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is simply not working.

The 2006 Act was passed to cover the care and welfare of all animals—domestic and wild. Under it, DEFRA published a code of practice for the welfare of privately kept non-human primates in 2010, which explained, among other things, that it was inappropriate to keep these animals alone in domestic settings for the purposes of companionship or personal interest. In March 2016, DEFRA announced that it planned to review the code of practice and would make recommendations for any changes to the code within a year. However, the Commons Library has been unable to find any information on the result of the review or any plans or proposals. Dr Cronin says that although the Animal Welfare Act can be enforced, it does not enforce the conditions in which primates should be kept. Instead, it is most often used to prosecute cruelty or neglect cases after the fact.

Five different laws cover the care of any one monkey in this country. The Zoo Licensing Act 1981 has the strongest laws governing species-specific care, and applies to any parks that are open to the public. Under that Act, some 200 Government inspectors on a constant inspection regime apply extremely rigorous standards covering animal welfare, health and hygiene, safety, ethics and other areas.

Under British law, primates are divided into two classifications. Non-dangerous primates, which can be bought and sold without any form of checking or regulation, make up the 66 species that I mentioned earlier. The rest are classified as dangerous, as specified under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976, which focuses on protecting owners, not the animals, and fails to acknowledge any duty of care for them. Interestingly, smaller monkeys were declassified on the basis of the size and shape of their canine teeth.

Thirdly, the pet shop licence laws of 1951 and 1983 cover pet shops that sell primates. Fourthly, the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925 and its 2012 regulations cover circus animals, while fifthly the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 covers animals in laboratories. Dr Cronin believes it is not logical that the same monkey could be subject to all the above laws to a greater or lesser degree, particularly as none seems to work properly. For example, she says that Monkey World’s most chronic problem is with the legal trade in primates as pets in the United Kingdom.

How do we solve this problem? The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association and the Born Free Foundation all advocate an outright ban on the ownership and trading of primates. However, Dr Cronin believes that such a move is neither realistic nor necessary. She suggests that we need a practical solution to ensure that these small primates are kept appropriately—I agree with her. Marmosets, tamarins and squirrel monkeys need to be registered under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. Alternatively, a register of primates that are kept as pets could be implemented, like the one for dangerous dogs, as suggested by the Minister himself at a meeting with Dr Cronin and me last June.

Additionally, the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, policed by local authorities, could be imposed on licensed private owners, pet shops, breeders and dealers. If required, the existing large national team of professional zoo inspectors could then be used to assess applications. Extending this existing standard of care to the pet trade would prevent the sale of individual monkeys over the counter, or on the internet, to those who simply do not understand what they are taking on. It seems to me and Dr Cronin, as well as many others, that the best solution is to require private owners to meet the standards imposed on zoos and game parks. Were those standards applied, I am sure we would all agree that no domestic user could possibly meet them, so keeping a monkey in one’s home, garage or anywhere else would be impossible. I humbly ask the Minister to please consider changing the existing laws, as he suggested last year, to make sure that all primates sold in Britain are properly protected, as they surely deserve to be.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate on the welfare of primates. He has championed this issue for several years, and Monkey World is located in his constituency. The issue has been the subject of a number of private Members’ Bills over the years, most recently the one promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray). I recall meeting my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset and his constituent, Dr Alison Cronin, the director of Monkey World, last June to discuss this very topic. I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit Wild Futures in Cornwall; staff there have similar concerns and have also raised this issue with me.

I wish to begin by discussing primates’ welfare needs. I listened to the examples my hon. Friend gave of primates being kept in inadequate conditions, and of the medical conditions that they can develop as a result of that treatment. This is obviously completely unacceptable, and it is also unacceptable in law: under the existing law, the Animal Welfare Act 2006, anyone who keeps an animal must ensure that its welfare needs are provided. That is in addition to not causing it any unnecessary suffering—one of the key developments or evolutions in the 2006 Act, compared with the legislation that had gone before it. This applies to anyone keeping a mouse, a dog or a primate. Failure to provide for an animal’s welfare is a breach of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

The Government understand that primates have special requirements, and that is demonstrated in the statutory code of practice for the welfare of privately kept non-human primates to which my hon. Friend referred. This states:

“Primates should not be considered as pets in the accepted sense of the word. They are not a species that can be treated as part of the family in the way that a cat or dog might be.”

In addition, in section 1.1, the code goes on to state:

“All gregariously social primate species should display social affiliative behaviours, including physical behaviours and vocal and visual displays appropriate to the species. These include, but are not limited to, social grooming, food sharing, communal resting and interactive play as appropriate to the species. Primates should be housed in stable groups of sufficient size and composition to allow the full expression of these behaviours.”

It goes on to state:

“Social interaction with companions of the same species not only provides essential stimulation and learning opportunities, but it also provides a source of comfort, reassurance and enjoyment. Removing a primate from its family or social group may have adverse psychological, emotional and physical welfare implications”.

Section 2 of the code goes on to describe in some depth the environment in which primates should be kept. It states:

“In planning a suitable environment, keepers should provide…A suitable location…An appropriate amount of space…An appropriate enclosure with sufficient three-dimensional content, including climbing structures to facilitate species-specific behaviour…The correct temperature, humidity, ventilation, noise levels and lighting…Appropriate feeding and sleeping sites…A means of, and location for, visual welfare assessment…A method of safe capture, handling and isolation of the animals…Security to prevent animal escape and unwanted entry by unauthorised people.”

It states that enclosure design and materials used should also ensure:

“A good hygiene regime to avoid disease transmission…A safe environment for the animals…A good regime of environmental enrichment…A wide range of appropriate behaviours.”

Anyone keeping a primate in solitary conditions or in a small cage or feeding it an inappropriate diet would already be breaking the law and could face up to six months’ imprisonment. That is a fundamental point of the Animal Welfare Act and one reason why animal welfare and veterinary organisations widely regard the Act as being such a success.

Primates are long-lived, intelligent, and socially complex animals. They engage in imaginative problem-solving, form intricate social relationships, and display complex patterns of behaviour. Being social is a striking feature of primates, and perhaps the most important in terms of meeting their needs. With few exceptions, they live in complex societies that can comprise tens of individual animals. In relation to their total life history, primates have long infant and juvenile phases, with social independence occurring long after nutritional weaning. This period is crucial for learning about the physical and social environment, parenting, survival, and reproduction. All primate species are long-lived, and need to be managed in old age.

I am listening very intently to my hon. Friend. Is he saying that the law is already sufficient to deal with this problem? If that is the case, why are more and more monkeys being kept in these conditions, and why is Dr Cronin having to rescue more and more of them as the years go by?

I was going to come on to deal with that point. There is an issue here around educating people about this code, raising the prominence of the code and ensuring that local authorities understand what is required to be enforced. I was going to touch on that later.

It is important for anyone thinking of buying an animal to understand what is involved and the associated costs of looking after that animal. In the case of a primate, it is even more important because very few people in the country possess the necessary skills to look after such animals.

I want to turn to the point about irresponsible owners. DEFRA receives many representations from people and organisations about problems associated with the welfare of animals—exotic or domesticated. Most of those problems can be traced back to a common denominator, which is irresponsible ownership. Some animals can also be dangerous to people and to our native wildlife if not kept or controlled appropriately. They can also carry diseases transmissible to humans.

Let me turn now to the key issue of advertising. My hon. Friend mentioned the way that primates are often advertised for sale online. The Pet Advertising Advisory Group, which is a collection of welfare and veterinary organisations, has managed to set minimum standards for six online advertising providers, which are: The Hut Group; FridayAds; Epupz; Pets4Homes; Gumtree; and Vivastreet. The standards of all those subscribing to the code, which include the largest classified sites dealing with pet sales, include a complete ban on the advertising of primates. This is an encouraging development and we would like to see other online providers adopt PAAG’s minimum standards.

I met my hon. Friend and others to discuss laws around this issue of keeping primates. Although my noble friend Lord Gardiner has taken responsibility for this issue since last July, I can tell my hon. Friend that, as the Minister for companion animals and animal welfare, one thing that I was keen to deliver was a review of animal licensing establishments. In February, DEFRA published its Next Steps document, which sets out how we will change the law in relation to licensed animal establishments. I believe that that will add additional barriers and safeguards when it comes to the sale of primates.

As regards the selling of pet animals, vendors will have to provide information to any prospective buyer, and that applies to traditional pet shops or sales online. That will do a great deal as it will require in law that the existing code is publicised and given to any prospective buyer. In addition, vendors will also have to comply with statutory conditions setting minimum welfare standards in line with the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This is an extra layer of protection for all animals being sold from licensed premises. It also creates further barriers to any trade in primates as it raises the prominence of that code. It means that nobody would be able to sell a primate unless they had been licensed by a local authority, and a local authority would not be able to license any such seller unless that seller complied fully with the code.

It is important to note that, in the case of granting licences, a local authority is able to list the types of species that can be sold and indeed to preclude people from selling certain species. It is therefore possible, and indeed highly likely, that local authorities will take an incredibly tough line on anybody selling primates. The likelihood is that it would only be a tiny number of specialist skilled collectors who understand what they are doing who would be licensed to do such a thing.

I concede that there is more work to do to raise the quality of inspections and the consistency of enforcement, so we will also improve the quality of local authority inspections by providing officers with guidance and, wherever necessary, additional expertise, so that we can strengthen the consistency of enforcement.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. The species covered by the Act were last reviewed between 2005 and 2006, with the schedule of animals considered to be dangerous being amended in 2007. Certain animals, including a number of species of smaller primates, such as marmosets, were removed from the schedule, as they were considered to be no more dangerous than domestic cats or dogs. At the time of the review, there were no records of serious incidents involving the primates removed from the list. It is important to recognise that the Act does what it says on the tin and regulates the control and keeping of animals deemed to be wild and dangerous. It is not in itself about animal welfare.

I want finally to deal with the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, and I commend my hon. Friend’s constituent, Dr Cronin, for her proportionate approach in coming up with a pragmatic, middle-way solution that goes beyond outright bans to strengthening the licensing. As I have said, I believe that the small changes that we have made to the profile of the primates code within the law through the Pet Animals Act 1951 and other legislation go a long way to strengthening the prominence of that code. The Zoo Licensing Act sets standards for zoos and requires all zoos to have a licence, although there are exemptions from some or all of the provisions of the Act for small collections in specific circumstances. The standards required go much wider than requiring minimum welfare standards for the animals. For example, the standards also set out how zoos should meet conservation and education requirements, and also how public safety should be secured. Clearly for individual owners or other keepers of primates these requirements might not be appropriate. We would therefore not expect to apply the standards to individual owners in full.

We consider that the standards set out in the primate code of practice provide primates with the same level of welfare protection as those in zoos. In both cases, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 applies and we would expect it to be used in cases of cruelty or poor welfare.

In conclusion, there is considerable debate about how many primates are kept in private ownership in this country. There are some estimates that it could be under 1,000, and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has raised sceptical concerns about some of the figures that are bandied around. As my hon. Friend pointed out, estimates tend to range between 1,200 and 5,000, but the really important thing is not so much the numbers but the standard of welfare. That is the overriding factor. As I say, there are already laws in this area and we are looking to update and improve them where necessary and when we can. We should continue to explore with stakeholders how to reach more owners and potential owners to make them better understand the importance of primate welfare.

Once again, I commend my hon. Friend for securing this debate, and his constituent, Dr Cronin, for the approach she has taken. I appreciate that he will be disappointed that I have not gone as far as he or she would like in adopting the type of licensing regime that he proposes, but I hope that he will continue to work with us as we strengthen the prominence and profile of the primates code in the Animal Welfare Act so that we can tackle some of the problems that he has highlighted this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.