A Veterinary Perspective on Captive Primate Welfare (Part 3)

The Misguided Exemption for Assistance Monkeys

In the wild, capuchins are active and live in large social groups. As "assistance monkeys," they can become psychologically damaged due to activity restrictions and isolation from other capuchins.  Kathy Milani/HSI

Surprisingly, opposition to CPSA also comes from those who believe it does not go far enough. A few primate protection organizations oppose it because of an exemption, not present in the original bill but added in subsequent versions, for “a single primate of the genus Cebus...obtained from and trained by a charitable organization...to improve the quality of life of severely mobility-impaired individuals.” This exemption refers specifically to the organization Helping Hands Monkey Helpers, which trains capuchins to be "helper monkeys" for disabled people.

The American Medical Veterinary Association, which in 2008 provided eight pages of testimony in support of the Act, now holds a position of “non-support,” citing the exemption. The AVMA opposes the use of nonhuman primates as assistance animals because of animal welfare concerns and risks of injury and disease spread. In 2011, the Americans with Disabilities Act was revised to remove primates as federally recognized service animals. Paid human assistants and modern technological advances are obvious alternatives to “helper monkeys.”

Welfare concerns arise in several areas. Capuchins are adapted to live in large social groups that range over hundreds of acres. As “helper monkeys,” they are completely isolated from other capuchins and encouraged to bond primarily with the persons they serve. Their psychological welfare is also damaged by the disruption of the maternal bond to facilitate “socialization” with humans. Furthermore, the program requires the monkey remain in the home at all times, restricting activity and exercise.

Although Helping Hands did not respond to my inquiry about husbandry, housing, and training techniques, a New York Times article quoted a program administrator as stating that to prevent the “easily excitable” monkeys from biting, their teeth are extracted, a practice that violates AVMA standards of animal welfare. Finally, questions have been raised about Helping Hands’ training methods which, at least in the past, involved the use of punishment, including electric shock.

Given all of these problems, the exemption for assistance monkeys, however well-intentioned, seems misguided. However, the number of primates involved in the “pet” trade far exceeds the number of helper monkeys, so most animal advocates support passage of CPSA, carrying the hope that the exemption can later be removed.

Veterinary Role: Treating and Preventing Harm to Captive Primates

Whatever the future holds for the CPSA or legal personhood for apes, veterinarians will continue to witness and treat physical and psychological ailments of primates. Often, these health problems are the direct product of being kept as “pets” in private hands. As with all our veterinary patients, the factors that affect primates’ health, welfare, and quality of life – as well as our ability to provide veterinary care for them – are largely determined by who is caring for them and what the circumstances of their captivity are.

In the national debates about primate welfare and rights, perhaps we veterinarians will follow the example of pediatricians, the early leaders in the child protection movement, and work on a national level to prevent the harms we are called upon to treat. For me, protecting animal welfare and preventing animal suffering – the commitments emphasized in recent revisions to the veterinary oath – involves more than practicing good medicine; it means agitating for societal change on a larger scale.

From this perspective, the CPSA and legal personhood for apes fall under the rubric of “preventive medicine”: they have the potential both to decrease the number of animals in harmful and inadequate conditions and to improve the conditions of captivity. Though working with these remarkable animals is rewarding and inspiring, I envision a world where primate sanctuary veterinarians are not needed, where primate sanctuaries go out of business due to lack of demand, and the primates of the world instead live autonomously in protected forests.

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  1. Peterson, Dale and Goodall, Jane, Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People, (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 37.
  2. De Waal, Frans, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998).
  3. Wise, Steven, “Great shout,” in The Animal Ethics Reader, 2nd ed, Ed Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler, (London; Routledge, 2008), 591-593.
  4. Hill, Thomas, “Autonomy and Benevolent Lies,” J Value Inquiry 18: 259.


Dr. Gwendy Reyes-Illg received a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology and a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. Currently, she is pursuing a Master’s degree in philosophy at Colorado State University, focusing on the intersection of animal, environmental, and development ethics. As a relief veterinarian, Dr. Reyes-Illg provides emergency and wellness care to dogs, cats, and occasional wildlife in veterinary hospitals along the Front Range in Colorado. She also travels to primate sanctuaries in Africa and the U.S. to help chimpanzees and other animals rescued from the bushmeat trade, biomedical research, and the entertainment industry. Dr. Reyes-Illg enjoys working with people and animals from all walks of life.

Animal advocacy has long been Dr. Reyes-Illg’s passion. She contributed to many campaigns, including a voter-initiated ban on sow gestation crates in Florida. As a veterinary student, she developed the Willed Body Program to provide ethically-sourced cadavers for equine anatomy laboratory courses. She also launched Helping Alachua’s Animals Requiring Treatment and Surgery (HAARTS), a program that has saved the lives of over 1,000 pets in rescue organizations and low-income households while providing an alternative to terminal surgeries in the veterinary curriculum. In 2006, she was recognized by the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics for her writing on ethical issues in veterinary education.