A Charlotte County couple has had monkeys on their backs for the past seven years.
In a rural swath of land deep in unincorporated Charlotte County and one mile down a small dirt road, you’ll find Kimberly and Steve Gunn, owners of Monkey Business SWFL.
They are USDA-licensed marmoset monkey breeders who raise and sell the small animals as pets.
A new bill introduced during the U.S. House Water, Oceans and Wildlife hearing Thursday in Washington would hurt their business, they said.
The Captive Primate Safety Act, sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, would make it unlawful to transport non-human primates across state lines. If passed, it would be illegal to attend an exotic animal auction in another state and bring home a pet monkey, or order a pet monkey online from out-of-state.
About 30 to 40% of the Gunns’ sales are from out of state, they said.
“Putting state law restrictions will do absolutely nothing other than enhance the illegal trade,” said Steve Gunn. “It doesn’t make any sense. What would be better would be to educate people about private ownership and if you need to have tighter regulations for the larger animals, then do that.”
The Gunns were the first people in Charlotte County to receive permission from the government to breed monkeys, and their facility is inspected annually at random by the USDA, they said.
“The problem is the abuse from the from the illegal sales on on the web, scammers and backyard breeders who don’t even know that their baby (monkey) is sick because they don’t know how to get them fecal tested, and they don’t take them to a vet because the vet might report them to the USDA,” Steve Gunn said. “The illegal people are just going to have more of an opportunity. They don’t care about the regulations and they certainly won’t care about more regulations.”
The Gunns’ main objection to the legislation is that it encompasses all non-human primates. The couple sells marmoset monkeys, a “New World” species which grows to about 8 inches tall and half a pound — much smaller than apes which can grow 6 feet tall and can weigh 200 pounds.
“If a chimpanzee bites somebody, that doesn’t mean all monkeys are dangerous — it means that one large monkey is dangerous in that instance,” Steve Gunn said. “I can understand regulation and training those who work with larger primates, but don’t put everybody in the same category.”
But researchers and advocates say that no non-human primates, regardless of species, should be kept as pets.
Sarah Baekler Davis, executive director of Humane Society Naples, worked with chimpanzees for 20 years, served as CEO of two sanctuaries for chimpanzees, and has degrees in primate behavior and primatology. She said that it’s unsafe for a wild animal of any size to live in a person’s home.
“It doesn’t tend to be fair and safe to both the human and the animal,” Baekler Davis said. “Primates haven’t been bred for very long in captivity; they very much are wild animals and have wild animal instincts.”
Michael Sutton, former president of the California Fish and Game Commission, testified before the U.S. House Water, Oceans, and Wildlife hearing on Thursday to advocate for the Captive Primate Safety Act.
“Because of the serious risk of disease transmission combined with the likelihood of escapes and attacks, keeping primates as pets threatens public health and safety,” Sutton said in his testimony. “These social, intelligent animals should not be separated from others of their kind, forced to live in unsuitable environments, and confined in small cages to sequester these dangerous animals from people.”
The legislation would not prohibit keeping primates as pets — it would only prohibit interstate movement, which would in turn discourage the trade. The Animal Wellness Action, the Animal Wellness Foundation and the Center for a Humane Economy endorsed the bill and Sutton’s testimony.
The bill is focused on primates as pets and wouldn’t impact research institutions, zoos or sanctuaries. A companion bill is proposed in the Senate.
The Cavalry Group, an organization that defends private property rights of animal owners and animal-related businesses, created a petition to stop the Primate Captive Safety Act.
The group alleges that there is no public health or safety risk associated with captive primates and said the bill is an overreach of the federal government.
“Nonhuman primates may carry infectious diseases that are dangerous and sometimes fatal to humans,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Since its inception seven years ago, Monkey Business SWFL has housed nine monkeys from owners who no longer wanted them. The Gunns provide the surrendered monkeys a home for life and focus on rehabilitation; they don’t breed or sell surrendered animals.
A main pillar of the Gunns’ business is education, they said. They track the weight of each baby monkey, keep a database of growth rates and research nutrition. They teach every perspective buyer about the animals and require buyers to have a working knowledge of how to care for the monkey before they will sell, they said.
“We want to raise awareness of primates and how to look after them — they can be the greatest thing that you’ve ever experienced,” Steve Gunn said. “We tell people, ‘they’re not a pet, they’re a companion.’”