Science & Environment

MPs demand accurate data on primate pet numbers

Tamarin Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption MPs want to know how many primates like this tamarin are in private hands in the UK

MPs are calling for urgent government action to determine how many primates are being kept as pets across the UK.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee says they are worried about the welfare of animals being kept privately.

In their report, the MPs say they support the idea of a ban on keeping and trading primates as pets.

Before that happens, they argue, the government must come up with accurate estimates on numbers and species.

Keeping primates as pets is currently legal in the UK. The big problem is that no-one is sure how many marmosets, tamarins, spider monkeys and others are in private hands.

According to the evidence taken by the MPs, the numbers could range between 3,000 and 20,000.

These figures were said to be at best, informed guesses.

To clarify the issue, the committee has recommended that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) commission independent research on the number and type of primates being traded in the UK.

They also want private owners to be given six months to register their animals before the count begins.

"What we did hear was that no one really knows what the scale of the problem is," said Anne McIntosh MP, the chair of the Efra committee.

"I really just think you need to know, on the basis of sound evidence, what the scale of the problem is, or if it is, I hesitate to say, alarmist."

Many campaigners feel that the report doesn't go far enough and say the only answer is a complete ban on trade and private ownership.

They are very doubtful that attempts to get people to register their primate will be successful.

"The evidence to date suggests that these type of registration programmes are cumbersome, often widely ignored or flouted," said Mark Jones from Humane Society International.

"That was the evidence of dog registration which was eventually abandoned - and there is plenty of evidence among those species that require registration under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, that the requirement is often ignored."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Committee members say they are inclined to ban the trade but want more information

Welfare organisations say that keeping primates in a domestic environment is incompatible with their complex social, behavioural, environmental and dietary needs.

Without specialist training, most people will not have the knowledge required to care properly for these animals, said Philip Mansbridge from Care for the Wild, a wildlife charity that gave evidence to the committee.

"Unless you can put a rainforest in your back garden, it is very difficult to recreate the diet, the environment, the temperature, the surroundings and the space for that animal - primates need to run, jump and swing, all very hard to do in somebody's front room."

The report says that the MPs are minded to ban the ownership and trade in these species. They acknowledge in their report that many of those who gave evidence were in favour of a complete ban but the MPs say that previous attempts to control animals by law have not always worked well.

"If you look at something like the Dangerous Dogs Act, where there was a kneejerk reaction of a ban, we've been trying to unravel it ever since," said Ms McIntosh.

"And in that case the breeders just came up with another type of dog."

The government says it will consider the report.

"Primates are wild animals with complex needs and it is already against the law to keep them in a domestic pet environment," said a spokesman.

A code of practice for the keeping of primates has been in operation for four years, but the MPs say that it needs to be clearer and contain more detailed information. It is due for review in the next 12 months.

The committee also says the government should mount a public education campaign to raise awareness of the rules. Local authorities should be encouraged to employ experts from the Zoo Licensing Inspectors list.

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