Capuchin monkeys, with pint-sized, human-like features, appeal to people who want pets they can dress, carry around, spoon feed and nuzzle.
But when the so-called organ-grinder monkeys reach sexual maturity around 5 years old, they can turn dangerous and destructive.
Wildlife officials adamantly oppose capuchins as pets. Helping Hands, a Boston-based service monkey training academy, believes they're better equipped than any other animal to help the physically disabled with certain chores — but doesn't endorse them as pets.
The 9- to 12-pound monkeys can turn the pages of a book, pick up dropped items, push buttons on remote controls, load DVDs and open water bottles. That, said wildlife experts, isn't good enough.
"Can you imagine going into the jungle, grabbing a monkey out of a tree and taking him home? He'd rip your face off — as he should, as he should," said Lynn Cuny, founder and chief executive of a sanctuary, Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation Inc. in Kendalia, Texas.
She has about 25 capuchins in two enclosures. Beth Preiss, a captive wildlife regulatory specialist with the Humane Society of the United States in Gaithersburg, Md., also isn't a fan of capuchins as pocket pets.
"Keeping monkeys as pets threatens public health and safety as well as animal welfare. They can attack, they can spread disease and the average pet owner cannot meet their needs in captivity," she said.
The same concerns can arise using wild animals as service animals, she said. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the ASPCA oppose primates as assistance or service animals.
Twenty-one (Illinois is considering the issue this week) states ban pet primates. About 15 states allow primates as pets and the rest require permits. Congress is considering the Captive Primate Safety Act, which would prohibit interstate commerce in pet primates. The bill is pending in the Senate.
Helping Hands said it socializes and trains its monkeys to federal standards. Since 1979, the organization has placed 145 capuchins with disabled people. It costs about $40,000 to breed, raise, train and place each monkey. The animal and lifetime care is free of charge to recipients.
"Unfortunately in the U.S., many monkeys purchased as pets do not get the care and attention they deserve throughout their 30- to 40-year lifespan," said Megan Talbert, executive director of Helping Hands, explaining why the organization won't embrace the idea of capuchins as pets.
The Internet has made it easy for anyone to get a pet monkey, Preiss said. And Hollywood hasn't helped.
In 2006, the number of capuchins at the Primarily Primates sanctuary in San Antonio, Texas, soared and the population grew to 130, said executive director Stephen Rene Tello. He blamed television's "Friends" and the story line featuring a capuchin called Marcel.
It's about time to see the castoffs from people who got capuchins because of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Night at the Museum," he said, calling the phenom Hollywood's "pet of the month."
Most people won't unload a capuchin until it has grown out of its baby and juvenile stages, Cuny said.
"If you've ever seen a baby monkey, your little heart just melts in place. They are beyond adorably precious. The problem is people only see that. Babies are adorable, whether they are baby wombats, elephants, monkeys or a child," Cuny said.
‘They are destructive’
She said anyone considering a wild animal for a pet should do some research. "And if they love animals, they will not contribute to the cruelty that gets those animals into the trade to begin with."
There are probably fewer than 100,000 pet capuchin monkeys in the United States, estimated Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, executive vice president & science adviser for the ASPCA in New York.
"They are destructive. They can tear a house apart. We are talking rip the curtains down, knock everything off every shelf you have. Think about a critter — who is more agile and able to reach places than a cat — having a tantrum. You can't house train them. They evolve to live in trees," Zawistowski said.
Many pet monkey owners will have the animal's teeth removed so they don't bite off their fingers, he said.
Joseph "Babe" Hamric of Chesapeake, Va., was attacked twice in two weeks in March by his pet capuchin named Noah, police said. The Vietnam vet, who got the monkey to help him cope with post traumatic stress disorder, told reporters the first attack occurred because he stepped on the monkey's tail. The second attack was unprovoked, he said.
Noah was not from Helping Hands, which gives its animals to people who are physically disabled as a result of spinal cord injury or disease. "Our service monkeys are not trained to provide emotional support for people with PTSD or other anxiety disorders," Talbert said.
Tammy Zaluzney of Washington, D.C., spent 14 years on staff at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and cautions against any wild animals as pets.
Hollywood may whet people's appetites, but too often capuchin owners just want an animal that is different from the neighbors, she said, warning their 15 minutes of tame won't last.
"Other people are replacing a child or have a monkey as a surrogate child," she said, "and here's a furry little human in Pampers and overalls."