By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
A backyard breeder of primates who has been on our radar for years was in the news this week for an incident that defies all common sense. Michael Poggi, who runs his operation from his home in Florida, charged a man $150 in August for a “full contact experience” with an adult leopard in his possession. According to an investigative report by Florida officials, Poggi agreed to let the victim, Dwight Turner, go inside the leopard’s cage to “play with it, rub its belly and take pictures.” The leopard attacked Turner, biting him on the head and the ear.
Turner underwent multiple surgeries for his critical injuries. Poggi was charged by the state of Florida with a misdemeanor for keeping wildlife in an unsafe condition and for allowing full contact with an extremely dangerous animal.
Our wildlife team began tracking Poggi years ago because of his backyard primate breeding business. While this aspect escaped the attention of the media reporting on the leopard incident, it is just as concerning because of the public safety and animal welfare problems involved.
In order to be sold as pets, infant monkeys are pulled from their mothers for sale to the pet trade. Poggi advertises baby marmosets on the internet for prices as high as $5,900, with “financing available”. Records show that in 2014, Poggi sold a six-week-old marmoset monkey to a Massachusetts couple for $3,500. A year later, the monkey was confiscated by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game because keeping a pet monkey in the state is illegal.
Poggi also offers close encounters with wild animals as well as takes animals off-site to birthday parties and other events.
As cute as they are, primates like marmosets and capuchin monkeys are not pets. Even the smallest primates are incredibly strong and can inflict serious injuries with their teeth and nails, including puncture wounds, severe lacerations and infections. Experts also agree that keeping primates can be extremely traumatic to the animals. Marmosets, for instance, like all primates, are intelligent and emotionally complex animals who need to be with their mothers for an appropriate amount of time and around their own kind to develop normally.
As veterinarian Kevin Wright, director of conservation, science and sanctuary at the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona points out, when kept in homes, primates are almost certain to become mentally disturbed. “The animal will never be able to fit in any other home. Never learn how to get along with other monkeys. And, more often than not, will end up with a lot of behavioral traits that are self-destructive.”
We have seen first-hand the suffering primates endure in captivity. Many of the primates at our Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch have been rescued from the exotic pet trade, including Willie, a pig tailed macaque, and Jackie, a capuchin monkey. Jackie had been a pet for 20 years and was living in a large bird cage in someone’s home for much of her life when she was seized by Louisiana authorities. Willie came to us 20 years ago after he bit his owner.
There have been 540 documented safety incidents involving captive primates in the United States since 1990, and more than half have been attributed to primates kept as pets. Zoonotic diseases – caused by germs that spread between people and animals – are also a concern. Human cold sores, according to Wright, can kill smaller monkeys like marmosets and tamarins. Macaques can carry herpes B, a potentially fatal virus to humans, infecting them through bites or scratches.
Approximately 25 states now prohibit keeping some or all primate species as pets, but these laws have limitations. Primates continue to be easily available from backyard breeders like Poggi and on the internet, so anyone who wants to keep a monkey as a pet can easily buy one.
The Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund are supporting bills in Congress that would stop the exploitation of primates and big cats. The Captive Primate Safety Act, S. 2562/H.R. 1776, would make it difficult for individuals not qualified to handle primates to buy and keep them as pets. The bill, introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., would prohibit the interstate and foreign commerce of these animals for the exotic pet trade. It would not impact zoos, universities or wildlife sanctuaries. The Big Cat Public Safety Act, S. 2561/H.R. 1380, introduced by Sen. Blumenthal and Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., would ban the possession of big cat species like tigers, lions and leopards by unqualified individuals, and it would prohibit poorly run animal exhibitions from allowing public contact with big cats.
Please contact your members of Congress and urge them to pass these bills, ending the suffering of thousands of primates and big cats across the United States who are now in the hands of people who should never be allowed to have them.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.