That lemur on Craigslist? Don’t be fooled – it makes a terrible pet
By Will Goodwin, 2019 Communications Intern and Sara Sorraia
It’s tough to look at a ring-tailed lemur and not get the urge to hold one. With their plush coats, black button noses, and raccoon-ish eyes, you can’t help but picture yourself taking one home and scratching behind his tufted ears. What’s surprising is how simple it is to do just that. In some states in the US, including North Carolina, it’s perfectly legal to own an animal as endangered and exotic as a lemur. In fact, there are an estimated 15,000 pet primates in the United States, and purchasing one is relatively easy: a couple thousand dollars and a trip to an online pet store is all it takes.
What many people don’t realize is that, despite its legality, keeping a lemur as a pet can be devastating to both the animal and the owner. Here’s why:
Lemurs are endangered
Lemurs are the most endangered group of mammals on Earth, with 95% of species facing a high risk of extinction. Although illegal to keep as pets in Madagascar, thousands of lemurs have been illegally removed from their wild habitats and kept in-country as household pets or as tourist attractions at Malagasy hotels and restaurants.
Much has been written about the serious, negative impact of the pet trade on the conservation of lemurs throughout Madagascar. This article addresses a related, but different, issue – one that’s even closer to home: the pet lemur trade right here in the United States.
Lemurs need lemurs
Even though most pet lemurs that are sold in the United States are bred in the United States, this does not make the issue any less serious. An infant lemur destined to become a pet is taken away from its mother on the day of its birth – and that traumatic early separation can have serious physiological and behavioral consequences throughout the life of the animal.
“To be psychologically healthy, lemurs require a long period of maternal contact and learning,” explains Cathy Williams, DVM, a longtime veterinarian and retired director of animal care and welfare at the DLC. “Lemur mothers carry their babies constantly for the first four months, and that contact is critical for normal development and behavior.” The separation of a newborn lemur from its mother permanently alters the baby’s brain development, and pet lemurs often develop deep social and psychological problems.
Infants reared by humans are often kept in isolation from all other lemurs, not just their mothers – bad news for a primate that, in the wild, lives in natural family groups and forms strong bonds with others of its species. “They’re social animals,” says the DLC’s conservation coordinator, Charlie Welch, who has seen many pet lemurs in Madagascar over the years. “They need to be around other lemurs.”
“You cannot be a companion for a lemur like you can for a domesticated dog or cat,” adds the DLC’s curator of behavioral management, Meg Dye. Lemurs have complex inborn social habits and structures, which cannot be satisfied by humans. Isolation from other lemurs can have serious consequences, including the development of harmful coping strategies such as repetitive pacing, over-grooming (excessive licking or pulling out hair), and self-injuring (biting or chewing on their tails or limbs).
“A human-raised lemur,” says Cathy, “will be physically and psychologically maldeveloped—it’s just bad for the animal.”
Lemurs are wild animals
It’s important to understand the difference between domestication and habituation. Dogs, cats, sheep, horses—these animals have been domesticated. This means that over long stretches of time, natural selection and selective breeding weeded out those animals whose temperaments weren’t suitable for living alongside humans.
When you see a wild animal being “nice” to a human, it’s likely become habituated to humans. That coyote or dolphin or black bear has grown accustomed to the presence of people, and in some cases can even be trained. But its inborn wild instincts will never go away, which can make habituated wild animals unpredictable and even dangerous. A famous example is Mantecore, a white tiger who starred in Siegfried and Roy’s legendary Las Vegas magic shows. During a live performance in 2003, Mantecore – then seven years old and having spent his entire life with humans, including being bottle-fed as a cub – attacked Roy Horn, paralyzing the performer and ending Horn’s career.
Similarly, you may sometimes see photos or videos of habituated young lemurs acting affectionately towards their owners. Yet these lemurs are still wild animals. “There are a lot of risks you assume if you try to tame a wild animal,” says Cathy. Which leads us to…
Lemurs become aggressive
Lemurs are dominance-oriented creatures. Their ingrained social structure requires an alpha, generally a female. While pet lemurs may seem calm and content as infants, when they reach sexual maturity (usually between two and four years of age), they begin to crave structure and assert dominance. With no other lemurs around, they may attempt to establish dominance over their owners in a similar manner as lemurs naturally do with other lemurs: by lunging, chasing, grabbing, and biting.
“Fairly frequently, we’ll get calls from lemur owners asking how to handle their pet now that it’s begun to bite or scratch them, or wondering where they can send a lemur they don’t want anymore,” says Megan McGrath, education programs manager at the DLC. “I remember one call, they said ‘I’m trapped in my bathroom and he’s outside the door. How do I escape?’”
The risks aren’t limited to lemurs’ owners. A young woman recently contacted the Lemur Center after being jumped on and bitten by a stranger’s pet lemur inside a convenience store in Ohio. In Florida, an escaped pet lemur attacked a 21-year-old pre-med student outside her grandparents’ home. “He was on me for a good solid minute,” she said. “It was one of the scariest things I’ve been through.” And a pet lemur named Keanu bit a woman in a consignment shop in Texas in 2015, resulting in a three-inch wound that “was so deep the doctor could actually put her finger inside it.” Previously, Keanu had attacked a postwoman after his owner “forgot to lock the door to Keanu’s bedroom, and when she looked away he ran towards [the postwoman’s] car, jumped in, and bit her.”
If a pet lemur or other pet primate injures someone, public health officials often require the animal to be surrendered or euthanized. Space in reputable sanctuaries is extremely limited, and zoos and conservation breeding facilities like the DLC cannot accept ex-pet lemurs. Nearly always, the animal is the ultimate loser.
Lemurs are expensive
According to the American Kennel Club, keeping the average dog healthy and fulfilled will set you back $15,000 over a typical thirteen-year lifespan. By contrast, if cared for properly, prosimians in human care can live 25 years or more. Here at the Duke Lemur Center, the health and general welfare of one lemur can cost upwards of $200,000 over its lifespan—and we get to buy food in bulk.
Lemurs are stinky
If you’re not turned off by the price tag, you should know this: lemurs stink. Most species of lemur communicate through scent marking. Ring-tailed lemurs are one of the more sought-after species for ownership. The males have scent glands in their wrists and on their chests and the females have scent glands directly under their tails, close to the anus. They’ll rub these glands on surfaces to mark their territory. In the wild, they’ll stink up a tree. In your home, they may decide to scent mark your sofa.
In addition to scent marking with their glands, lemurs will urine mark just as frequently. Some species, such as ruffed lemurs, have loose, splatty stools – and lemurs can’t be house- or litterbox-trained.
And because they’re primates like us, humans and lemurs can easily pass diseases to one another, including tuberculosis and intestinal infections like giardia. Transmission can happen through direct contact, like touching fecal matter, or indirectly, by breathing the same air.
Lemur vet care is hard to find
Think of how often dogs or cats get sick and are taken to the vet; lemurs are no different. Yet very few veterinary hospitals will treat primates because of the possibility of disease transmission to humans and risk of injury to staff. “Lemurs’ teeth are made for slashing,” says Cathy. “Lemurs are also strong, so they can be difficult to control.”
Recently a pet lemur owner requested help diagnosing toxoplasmosis (a parasitic infection) via the DLC Facebook page, because “all the vets I work with don’t do exotics.” Even among exotic animal veterinarians, many refuse to see primates; those who do often know very little about lemurs’ diseases or how to treat them.
Caring for lemurs is hard work every day
Between cleaning enclosures, proper social interaction, routine and emergency medical attention, and preparing and feeding a proper diet, lemur care is a 365-days-per-year life-altering responsibility. An owner cannot legally drive with her lemur across state lines without a permit, or take her lemur to a boarding facility when she goes on vacation.
Even providing a lemur with a proper daily diet is complicated. Owners occasionally contact us, already having purchased a pet lemur, with no idea what to feed it. In one case, the owners of a ring-tailed lemur named Milo were feeding him pizza and ice cream. In a reality television show filmed in eastern North Carolina, a lemur is shown eating a slice of bacon.
That pet lemurs tend to have serious nutritional problems from being fed inappropriate diets exacerbates the problem of limited access to qualified veterinary care. Unfortunately this can lead to privately-held pet lemurs developing a host of illnesses, including obesity and diabetes, and dying prematurely.
How you can help
If you want a pet, choose a domesticated animal and not a wild or exotic one. But before bringing home a companion, do your research to make sure you’re prepared to meet its needs. Even seemingly “simple” domesticated pets like guinea pigs are social, herd animals that do better in pairs or groups and need plenty of space, enrichment, and a high-quality diet (hay, pellets, and fresh fruits and veggies) every day.
Even if you never own a pet lemur yourself, there are choices you can make to reduce others’ interest in lemurs as pets:
Avoid hands-on “encounters” with primates, such as touching or feeding: The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has reported that viewing lemurs in contact with humans increases the public perception that they are suitable as pets. Avoid businesses and wildlife parks that offer contact with lemurs or other wild animals, such as yoga with lemurs or hands-on “encounters” involving touching or feeding.
Don’t “like” or share images of primates in human settings: Videos and selfies where humans and animals are in direct contact go viral all the time. After a clip of a ring-tailed lemur appearing to motion for a child to pet it accrued millions of views, there was a dramatic increase in Google searches for the phrase “pet lemur.” The next time you come across a video of a pet lemur in a bathtub, or a photo of a diapered ring-tail perched on someone’s shoulder, don’t share it. Guidelines released in January 2020 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global authority on wildlife protection, explains how such portrayals fuel public misconceptions that primates are pets, playmates, and photo props.
 The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) defines pets as “animals kept by humans for pleasure or companionship” and estimates 15,000 privately owned non-human primates in the United States. These can be “easily obtained” by the general public through “online advertisements, pet stores, and roadside attractions.” The problem isn’t limited to lemurs, as “non-human primate species most commonly kept in personal possession include marmosets, tamarins, lemurs, capuchins, squirrel monkeys, macaques, baboons, and chimpanzees.”
Official Position Statement: The Duke Lemur Center is against all trade in pet primates, and against the holding of any prosimian (lemur, loris, bushbaby, potto) as a pet. To learn more, please read the DLC’s formal position statement on pet lemurs.