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Marmoset monkeys, wild animals not pets

February 12th, 2004, 08:43 AM

By Thomas Hartleb

It's hard to resist those big brown eyes, that little human-like face and those bushy white ears.

Yet few people realise that by getting a marmoset monkey, they're dealing with a wild animal and not a pet.

Marmosets that have been left to run free around the house have been known to drown in toilet bowls and burn their paws on hot plates.

Wendy Macleod is a primatologist and manager of the World Primate Sanctuary in Linbro Park, Johannesburg, where she takes care of around 150 marmosets. It costs R200 a month to look after a single monkey.

About four new ones are brought to her every month by owners who don't know how to care for them.

Lack of awareness often causes owners to overlook problems until it's too late. Most of the marmosets Macleod receives suffer from rickets, the result of undernourishment and lack of exposure to sunlight.

They also easily contract human diseases such as the common cold and the Herpes Simplex virus, which causes fever blisters in humans. The virus is transmitted when the monkeys lick a plate or spoon that has been used by a human or by kissing them.

Macleod insists that marmoset sellers educate their buyers about how to care for and feed these monkeys.
"Buyers must also do their homework," she said. "These are very specialised creatures." Even marmosets who have been hand-reared from birth remain aggressive.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' wildlife unit manager, Rick Allen pointed out that the problem with marmosets is that they enact their wild behaviour in captivity.

In a household they become territorial around the dominant person and will protect him or her by biting other people. "Exotics are extremely difficult to keep," he said. Being social animals it is also important that they not be kept in isolation.

A breeder from Meyerton, Helen Swart said once these "little humans" become sexually active at around one to two years of age "they start becoming nasty". "They're very nice in a cage and lovely to look at, but they're definitely not pets," she said.

Macleod estimates that there are between 300 and 500 marmoset breeders in Johannesburg alone.

"Traders here make a lot of money," Macleod said. The normal selling price for one is around R2 500. Males sell for slightly less. The owner of Paul's Pets in Norkem Park, Kempton Park, Paul Smith, sells his for between R1 500 and R1 800.

Macleod opposes marmosets being kept in pet shops where they are often kept alone in small cages without enough exposure to sunlight and they also risk "cross contamination" from other animals.

She wants to see a permit system introduced to control the ownership and breeding of these animals.
She estimates that there are between 3 000 and 6 000 marmosets in the country, with this figure increasing by up to 1 000 every year. "This is scary stuff," Macleod said.

Dr Dorianne Elliott of the bird and exotic animal clinic at Onderstepoort, in Pretoria, said a permit is not now needed to own a marmoset, but that due to lobbying by various groups, there is "some possibility" of the permit system being introduced.

At present legislation only exists to protect indigenous or endangered species, while marmosets come from South America. Nature conservationist Elzia Wilson said a permit is needed to transport marmosets from one province to another.