High-Risk Monkey Business

The exotic-animal trade is moving disease-carrying primates from labs and zoos into the hands of pet owners. The results, scientists warn, can be deadly.

Ringo is tethered to a sink pipe by a four-foot leash attached to his collar. The two-year-old, pig-tailed macaque has been bathed and toweled dry, his tail pulled through a disposable diaper that's fastened with duct tape. He wears a red-checked union suit to keep his diaper on and prevent him from getting a chill, and plays with a teddy bear and some plastic toys. Every minute, as if on cue, Ringo utters a high-pitched cry. The monkey grabs for the pant legs of passers-by. He flings his toys across the room, then wails until they're returned. He tries to hoist himself into the sink, feet first. But because the leash is too short today, he is unable to complete his upside-down climb and tumbles to the floor. He keeps trying.

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Ringo looks like a typical pet monkey: a bit rambunctious perhaps, but not dangerous. Nevertheless, he belongs to a category of primates that veterinarian Terri Parrott calls "time bombs" -- for many of them harbor highly infectious viruses that can be transmitted to humans, resulting in such deadly diseases as herpes B.

Ringo's home, Parrott's veterinary clinic in Cooper City, Florida, has a wing devoted to the care of native and nonnative wildlife. She is one of the few veterinarians in Florida who specialize in treating exotic species. Consequently, pets, castoffs, and all manner of "problem animals" find their way to her clinic. When the owner of a blind baboon died of AIDS, for example, friends of the deceased arrived with the animal and its high chair and said simply, "Here, take this monkey." State and federal wildlife authorities often deposit confiscated animals -- such as a tiger that turned up at a gas station in Hialeah -- with Parrott. In addition to Ringo, the current primate inventory includes a capuchin seized during a federal drug bust.

These animals' fates are typical of those suffered by monkeys and other exotic pets, which are often passed like relay batons from one owner to the next. The sale and resale of certain exotic species is legal in most parts of the country (though some jurisdictions prohibit keeping certain wild animals as pets, and others require that owners be licensed). The exotic-animal trade is regulated by a confusing mélange of authorities: State veterinarians handle health matters related to the sale and ownership of these animals; state fish and game agencies are responsible for overseeing some animals, while agriculture departments monitor others; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates the interstate -- but not intrastate -- sale of endangered species; and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) watches over the importation of primates and, presumably, their resale as pets, which in some cases is legal and in others is not. In short, no one is in charge.

Little wonder that exotic pets are so often doomed to confinement in backyard cages or basements. Some are released to the wild, where they die from disease or starvation. Others end up with breeders, who sell newborns to pet owners ill equipped to care for them. Still others are foisted off on "sanctuaries" that often are merely fronts for illicit animal-peddling operations.

Parrott knows that finding Ringo a suitable home will be anything but easy. His unruliness -- so evident on this day -- will only complicate the search: The foot-and-a-half-tall monkey somehow manages to unsnap the leash from his collar and sprint across the examining room, swiping at jars and folders. Parrott eventually corners the escape artist, who is surprisingly submissive when she pins his arms behind his back. Ringo marches obediently across the room and allows her to reattach the leash. This behavior, she says, is hierarchical: Ringo knows that she's dominant, and therefore he gives in to her commands.

But if that hierarchy is what allows Parrott to control Ringo, it also causes her concern; because of it, she says, anyone who owns a pet macaque faces a serious threat. "If I hit Ringo, he'll attack somebody else, because that's just their pecking order," she explains. "My children, who are seven, five, and four, come in here, and if I yell at Ringo he tries to attack my kids. That's the way macaques are. What's going to happen someday is that the parents are going to yell at the baby macaque, the macaque is going to bite the kid, and the kid is going to come down in 11 to 21 days with flu-like symptoms. Then they'll take him to the pediatrician, where he won't get treated correctly, and he'll die."

Parrott and a handful of veterinary colleagues have been sounding the alarm about macaques for years, though until recently few paid attention. It wasn't that science didn't support their contentions: Since the early 1930s, primatologists have known that macaques carry Herpesvirus simiae, commonly known as herpes B or B virus (scientifically referred to as cercopithecine herpesvirus), which can cause a potentially fatal brain infection in humans. Macaques typically carry the B virus throughout their lives and shed it intermittently in saliva or genital secretions. Studies of macaques -- both wild and captive -- show that the proportion of B-virus-positive animals increases as they grow to maturity. At any given moment, about two percent of infected macaques are shedding the virus via saliva, urine, feces, and tears. This shedding typically happens when a monkey is ill or under stress, or during breeding season. A human who is bitten, scratched, sneezed on, or spit at while the animal is shedding runs the risk of infection. But the monkeys rarely show any signs or symptoms to indicate shedding is taking place.

Because 80 to 90 percent of adult macaques are believed to harbor the virus, humans who work in close proximity to them -- in laboratories or other research institutions -- are presumed to be in constant peril. These workers are instructed to take Biosafety Level 2 precautions, as prescribed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH): the use of lab coats, surgical masks, goggles, gloves, and other protective measures. Such protocols can have life-or-death implications, as the herpes B virus has proved fatal in approximately 80 percent of known cases. In one 1997 incident, a young research assistant at Emory University's Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta died from B-virus-related complications after she was splashed in the eye with an unknown body fluid when moving a rhesus macaque -- the first time this route of transmission had ever been documented.

The disease is catastrophic: It begins with fatigue and flulike symptoms that progress to headache, vomiting, double vision, difficulty swallowing, sensory loss, and convulsions. Death can come as early as four weeks after exposure, and those who survive suffer pain, paralysis, and severe neurological damage. "Those who don't die wish they had," says a physician who has studied the virus.

Public health officials have other reasons to be worried. Monkey bites can cause severe lacerations, infected wounds, and potentially debilitating conditions such as osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone that can result in permanent deformity. Monkeys can also infect humans with the Ebola virus, monkeypox, and other deadly illnesses, although this happens very rarely. But with macaques the leading public health concern is the exposure to the B virus.

Contact with macaques was, until recently, limited almost exclusively to zookeepers and biomedical researchers, who were aware of the risk of herpes B transmission and took appropriate precautions. Documented B virus infections have therefore been rare -- the CDC places the number in the United States at about 40. But in the last few years, Parrott and other veterinarians have noticed a troubling trend: The monkeys are increasingly showing up in private hands. Macaques, which come from India, China, Japan, and other parts of Asia, have entered the pet trade due in large part to zoos, university laboratories, drug companies, and other institutions that discard their unwanted primates.

Ringo ended up with a private owner, James Beekman, a 34-year-old auto detailer, who kept the monkey illegally in his Palm Beach residence. Beekman had never secured the permit required by the state and had ignored the city's prohibition against owning primates. Authorities learned of Ringo after Beekman stopped on a sidewalk one day in 1996 to let Debra Brewster and her four-year-old daughter, Catherine, play with the young macaque. A short time later Brewster noticed a bite mark on Catherine's shoulder. A physician who treated the puncture wound recommended testing the monkey for disease. But because Beekman had no permit to keep Ringo, public health officials were unable to identify him. Then the officials played a hunch: A year earlier, Palm Beach paramedics had responded to a "911" call from an apartment dweller whose pet spider monkey was having seizures. A fire department rescue unit arrived to find the caller performing CPR on the tiny primate, but to no avail. From a photo, Brewster identified the man. It was James Beekman.

At first, Beekman denied owning Ringo, but then confessed after state wildlife investigators pieced together the truth: Beekman had bought the macaque from an exotic-animal dealer in Fort Lauderdale. Five days after the biting incident, Beekman finally turned Ringo over to state wildlife authorities. Three and a half weeks later, he was charged with five misdemeanor counts. Among the charges: secretly trying to resell the monkey to escape prosecution. During the five-day lag, health officials were left guessing about the type of monkey that had bitten Catherine and about its disease status. The girl had to undergo a series of tests and rabies shots, a regimen Beekman dismissed as an overreaction. Not only had he diapered the macaque and slept in the same bed and eaten off the same plate as the animal, he told the Palm Beach Post, but hundreds of people had held or kissed his pet with no adverse consequences.

Parrott was not quite so sanguine. After Ringo was deposited with her for safekeeping, she sent his blood off for testing. The macaque tested positive for herpes B. For five weeks, the Brewsters waited in anguish before they were assured Catherine wasn't infected. Later, Ringo was retested several times and the results proved negative. Parrott thinks he first tested positive because he was a baby then and had his infected mother's antibodies in his blood.

The primate trade -- much like the trade in exotic animals generally -- is built on a succession of buyers like James Beekman, who often don't know what they're getting themselves into. It's a business filled with cruelties, primatologists say, that begin when a primate dealer removes a newborn monkey from its mother, who has given birth in captivity. The traumatized, days-old monkey is packed into a crate and hauled off to an auction or shipped by air to a customer who typically has no primate- care experience.

For some buyers, the tiny monkeys are a child substitute: They're christened, outfitted in baby clothes, and started on futile toilet-training regimens. For others, pet monkeys are status symbols, to be shown off in public and subjected to endless stress and thoughtless abuse. Young monkeys are susceptible to measles, mumps, and other human diseases, and because adequate veterinary care is often difficult to find, many die. Within a couple of years, the monkeys usually undergo dramatic personality changes: They become unruly and destructive, which confuses and upsets their owners. They sometimes inflict life-threatening bites, so their teeth are extracted. They initiate troubling sexual displays, so the males are castrated and the females spayed. Many owners eventually stop having physical contact with their monkeys, leaving these social animals to spend the rest of their lives in the equivalent of solitary confinement. Others look for someone to take the animals off their hands.

Human-reared monkeys lack survival skills, which means they can't be returned to the wild. Zoos don't want them. Animal shelters aren't equipped to keep them. Sanctuaries are overrun with others like them. In many instances, the only willing takers are the exotic-animal dealers who fuel the often-illicit trade in the first place.

When the sources of primates for the pet trade are labs engaged in biomedical research, the public health implications are ominous. Such animals may carry other infectious diseases besides herpes B, including hepatitis and SIV, the HIV-like simian immunodeficiency virus, which can be passed to humans. Because of such health threats, the American Society of Primatologists in June 1998 came out against private ownership of primates for nonscientific or noneducational purposes. And the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians has recommended banning private ownership of primates and further sale of them as pets.

Despite these warnings, institutions continue to unload their unwanted primates. Even the nation's major primate research centers routinely turn over to sanctuaries or dealers animals that may endanger the public. Consider New York University's Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates, which scooped up "surplus" zoo and circus chimpanzees in the late 1970s for hepatitis vaccine research and in the late 1980s for AIDS research.

In early 1995, NYU began planning to give away the lab, setting off a scramble for its 300 baboons, macaques, and other primates. About 50 of the chimps went to a huge California sanctuary that had a workforce largely composed of volunteers with no background in primate care. Another 15 chimps went to a sanctuary near Montreal. Quebec health authorities were troubled by the relocation and spent several futile months requesting copies of the animals' complete medical histories. The primates, which may have been infected with human hepatitis or HIV, wound up roaming an indoor-outdoor facility with few safety protocols. As with the California sanctuary, the chimps' care was largely entrusted to volunteers with little biosafety training.

In mid-1997, Emory University's Yerkes primate center sought to dispose of 40 sooty mangabeys -- monkeys native to West Africa -- infected with SIVsm, a strain isolated from sootys. SIVsm is a close relative of HIV type 2 (HIV-2), which can cause AIDS in humans. SIVsm has been shown to be directly transmissible to other species, and there is widespread speculation that this simian virus evolved into HIV-2 after jumping the "species barrier" to infect humans. Some scientists suspect this cross-transmission occurred when West Africans butchered and ate infected monkeys.

In 1992, the CDC reported that two U.S. laboratory workers -- including one who had handled blood specimens without gloves -- had developed antibodies to SIV. So far, the humans infected with SIVsm (at least five have now been identified in the United States) and another retrovirus called simian foamy virus have suffered no adverse health consequences, nor have their sexual partners been infected. But these monkey viruses are not thoroughly understood. There is some concern that they may mutate and, like HIV-1 (which is responsible for the global AIDS epidemic), spread between people.

The Yerkes staff members charged with finding a new home for their infected mangabeys were repeatedly frustrated. Two primate facilities in Texas declined, expressing worries about the animals' health status. Finally, in late 1998, Yerkes worked out an agreement with Wild Animal Orphanage, a large private sanctuary in San Antonio. Officials of the Texas Department of Health learned of the arrangement only after receiving an anonymous tip. Because the sanctuary is open to the public, they worried that visitors might be put in jeopardy. Carol Asvestas, who operates the sanctuary with her husband, Ron, tried to quell officials' fears by spelling out the specifics of the deal: Yerkes had agreed to finance the construction of a building to house the mangabeys; the building would be on land outside the city limits; and the research center had agreed to train the sanctuary's two permanent employees, Carol Asvestas, and any future staff in Biosafety Level 2 protocols.

But the proposed transfer of the mangabeys raises some troubling questions. What happens if, in 5, 10, or 15 years, the sanctuary -- a nonprofit organization that solicits donations -- cannot raise enough money to stay in operation? Who will take responsibility for the infected mangabeys if they outlive the sanctuary operators, or if the place is closed?

There is another cause for concern: The Asvestases have a poor track record for security. In April 1997, an intruder's hand was mangled by a tiger when he and an accomplice broke into the sanctuary, possibly to steal a cougar. A month earlier, a tiger escaped from its cage, apparently after someone tampered with the door. And, in late 1997, a capuchin monkey escaped from its cage. Earlier this year, the Asvestases were charged with violating the Animal Welfare Act for failing to "maintain structurally sound housing facilities for nonhuman primates in good repair so as to protect the animals from injury, to contain the animals securely, and to restrict the entrance of other animals." They settled the case last August by agreeing to pay a $1,000 fine and spend $10,000 to repair cages.

More than 60 years after herpesvirus simiae was identified, little is known about the macaque-borne virus. What's certain is that rhesus, Japanese, pig-tailed, and virtually every other macaque species (there are more than a dozen) carry herpes B. There are other troubling aspects of the virus, which, according to medical literature, has killed about 20 people in the United States. A definitive diagnosis requires a test that only a few laboratories in the world can perform. What's more, monkey owners often don't report bites or scratches out of fear that their pets might be confiscated, so some of the numerous deaths caused by influenzalike or viral encephalitis symptoms may in fact be attributable to herpes B. Finally, it's possible that infected individuals may suffer only mild initial symptoms and that the virus may emerge later, long after the moment of exposure. If someone were to die from the virus, who would suspect a monkey-borne disease? "If no one is performing up-front testing for zoonotic diseases," says Dr. Stephanie Ostrowski of the CDC, referring to diseases that can be passed from animals to humans, "then it's not a question of whether there's going to be a disastrous incident, but when."

Given the threat herpes B poses, it seems reasonable to expect that zoos, biomedical researchers, and others who house, use, and display macaques take uncompromising precautions to ensure that these animals never leave institutional control. But in fact, during the past decade, many of these institutions, concerned about the liabilities associated with harboring B-virus-infected macaques, rushed en masse to get rid of them.

The official records of curators from zoos accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) show the distribution routes of potentially deadly primates:

  • From the Columbus Zoo: 11 Japanese macaques to Jim Fouts, a Kansas dealer who has sold surplus animals at auction.
  • From the Buffalo Zoo: Japanese macaques to Edward Novack, a New York dealer whose exotics are sold to breeders or advertised for sale in Animal Finders' Guide, a magazine that caters to the private pet trade.
  • From the Cincinnati Zoo, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, and the Burnet Park Zoo in Syracuse: Japanese macaques to Northland Wildlife, a Minnesota-based animal dealer whose owner pleaded guilty in 1993 to a federal charge of illegally selling monkeys.
  • From the Los Angeles Zoo: Celebes macaques to Texas dealer Buddy Jordan, who sells animals at auctions, to private individuals, and to so-called sanctuaries that breed primates for the pet trade.
  • From Bucknell University: seven Japanese macaques from the university's laboratories to Animal Kingdom Zoo, in New Jersey, a privately run menagerie that doubles as a primate dealer.
  • And remarkably, from the California Regional Primate Research Center, an NIH-funded research center: eight Japanese macaques to Thomas Nichols, of Georgia, a well-known primate trafficker who was later indicted by the federal government for unlawfully importing and selling monkeys and was sentenced to a year in jail.

The dumping of zoo macaques has been so rampant that hundreds have seemingly vanished from institutions accredited by the AZA. In a landmark study, Ostrowski reviewed primate-transfer patterns from AZA institutions and documented about 200 Japanese macaques that are now -- in zoo terminology -- "lost to follow-up," along with 200 black macaques, 17 lion-tailed macaques, and other species of macaques for which there are no official records.

The pet trade is now teeming with macaques. They're for sale at exotic-animal auctions. They're moving from roadside menageries to dealers, and from there to private homes. Macaques are even being crossbred with other macaque species, creating hybrids whose capacities for B virus and SIV infections are unknown. In a recent issue of Animal Finders' Guide, five advertisers offered macaques, including a South Florida broker, and a Wisconsin dealer with pregnant snow macaques. This commerce in the potentially deadly monkeys has spooked public health officials, who have seen a rise in macaque bites. In a recent 10-month period, 13 such bites were reported to the Arizona Department of Health Services. None of the victims was infected. Ê

Ringo is still a baby, but in two years, Parrott says, he'll be a full-grown male with big teeth and a surly attitude. Many macaques in private hands are about that same age, having come into popularity as pets only recently. Age brings on not only aggressiveness but sexual activity -- which experts believe triggers the shedding of herpes B. Many older, more aggressive, infected macaques coming into contact with greater numbers of unsuspecting humans is particularly troubling to Parrott and some of her colleagues. They're convinced that this will lead to more cases of herpes B.

The CDC could slow the private trade in macaques by enforcing the foreign quarantine regulations of the Public Health Service Act, which has prohibited the redistribution of imported primates and their progeny to the pet trade since 1975. But so far the CDC has not enforced those regulations.

In the Miami area, Parrott has seen macaques become especially popular with Latino families. "They're the ones I'm worried about," she says, "because, like many other pet owners, they have no education about what they've got."

James Beekman wanted his pet macaque back. so on April 23, 1998, he headed for the judicial complex in downtown Palm Beach to face the charges against him. In the end, he negotiated a plea bargain. Beekman not only pleaded guilty on three charges, he also agreed to forfeit his monkey and pay about $3,000 in court fees and restitution, including $500 for Catherine Brewster's medical bills. In addition, he was placed on probation for two years. Not long afterward, Ringo also got a reprieve. Parrott and her co-workers decided to adopt the young macaque.

Beekman earned his own form of absolution: A Florida fish and game officer agreed not to oppose Beekman's new wildlife-possession application. If, after three years, he has met the terms of the plea arrangement, Beekman -- like a growing number of macaque owners -- will be free to sleep with and eat off the same plate as a monkey, and expose himself and others to a killer virus.

Adapted from Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species, soon to be published by PublicAffairs.