To some people, lemurs seem like the ideal pet: smart, friendly, soft and cuddly, who wouldn’t want a lemur to live with them at their home?
In fact, many North American’s and Malagasy people do own lemurs as pets. But the word is getting out that lemurs are not good pets. If you Google “lemurs as pets” you will find many more articles warning against the practice than people advising lemurs as pets. This is a good thing, but we still have a long way to go. For example, illegal wildlife trade is the second-largest trade on the international black market, second only to narcotics. What motivates people to remove endangered wild animals from their natural habitat and what can we do to stop this from happening?
A recent article published in PLoS ONE used the power of the internet to gauge people’s reactions to seeing a cute lemur video where the lemur was being kept as a pet in Madagascar. The researchers found that viewing the viral video did have an impact on people’s perception of what it would be like to have a lemur as a pet. As the video was shared more on Twitter, more people expressed interest in owning a lemur as a pet (Clarke et al. 2019). This research shows that what we share online has an impact on people’s perceptions of wild animals. When viewers see primates in unnatural settings with people beside them, they are more likely to think that the animal is not endangered, for example (Clarke et al. 2019). The authors conclude that although the direct threat to lemurs from the video is low, the indirect link to people’s perceptions of lemurs not being threatened is shown. This article on the viral video is only the latest of a series of articles on lemurs in the pet trade.
In 2016, a research article estimated that over 28,000 lemurs had been impacted by the pet trade between 2010 and 2013 (Reuter et al. 2016). This capture of wild animals may threaten endangered and critically endangered wild lemurs the researchers conclude. Why do so many people want to have lemurs as pets? In Madagascar, the reason may be one of status. It can be a sign of wealth and privilege to have a lemur as a pet. Also, a pet lemur can bring added income. For example, a restaurant may have a lemur as a pet to attract extra business from tourists. Tourists are often ill-informed and just want a ‘selfie’ with a lemur to show their friends, without realizing the consequence to the lemur. Think twice before you take a photo with a trapped, wild animal during your travels. And if you see a pet lemur in Madagascar, you can add your sighting to a survey led by Kim Reuter, PhD by following this link: https://www.petlemur.com/survey-in-english.html. This survey has resulted in several scientific publications and is filling in the gap in knowledge about the pet lemur trade.
One thing that people who keep primates (such as lemurs) pets do not realize initially is that they are highly social and cognitively complex animals that have needs that humans cannot provide. Usually a lemur lives a rich social life in the wild with relatives, friends and enemies nearby and in constant contact. These interactions and resulting decision making during socializing provide rich mental stimulation that a lemur or other primate cannot get by being kept in a cage and interacting mainly with one human who cares for them. If you really care for lemurs, consider supporting one of the many conservation initiatives that work to protect them in the wild and spread the word: lemurs are not good pets!