Chimpanzees might seem like an alluring exotic pet with their human-like expressions and entertaining antics. However, they are very difficult to properly care for. While they are extraordinarily intelligent and affectionate animals, this intelligence can lead to boredom and destructive behavior as they grow. Plus, chimpanzees thrive in social settings, so you must be able to dedicate a lot of time to these animals and have a large, durable enclosure in which you can house them. Chimps also require a varied diet to stay healthy. Most people are not able to meet their overall care needs.
Common Names: Chimpanzee, chimp
Scientific Name: Pan troglodytes
Adult Size: up to 5 feet tall; 60 to 115 pounds (females are typically smaller than males)
Lifespan: 50 years or more in captivity
Can You Own a Pet Chimpanzee?
Even though they are quite endearing, pet chimps still behave like wild animals. It's illegal to own one in most parts of the U.S. Still, some states—including Texas, Kansas, Idaho, and Alabama—allow pet chimps. You will likely need a permit to keep a chimp. And you must know your local exotic pet laws, which might prohibit ownership even if your state allows it.
Owning a chimp, like any large wild animal, is likely to prove detrimental for both the animal and its keeper. Chimpanzees have evolved to live freely among their own kind in the wild. Keeping a chimp isolated with humans in a captive setting, no matter how loving, can result in depression and health problems for the chimp. In addition, there is the ethical issue of human safety; even the most docile chimp may become agitated and harm people with whom it interacts.
Things to Consider
Owning a chimpanzee is largely illegal and a widespread, contentious ethical issue. Safety is also a concern to consider. Adult chimps are much stronger than most humans, so an unruly chimp may easily harm—or even kill—its owner.
Chimpanzee Behavior and Temperament
Adult chimpanzees are much stronger than even large adult humans, and they can become aggressive. Chimps have hurt and even killed people in captivity.
Chimpanzees are found in forests and savannas of Central and West Africa. In the wild, they live in close-knit family groups of up to 120 chimps. They're very social creatures, eating and sleeping together as well as grooming and playing with each other. Young chimps nurse for the first five years of their life and are not considered adults until age 13.
As pets, chimps are active, strong, noisy, and extremely hands-on. They will generally form bonds with their human family members, especially if you acquire them at a young age. And many enjoy being held and playing with humans.
But once they reach adulthood, chimps can become quite physical and demanding, leaving many chimp owners unable to control their animals. Even when raised in captivity, they retain their wild instincts, making them unpredictable. Their moods can change from friendly to violent without an obvious trigger, and they will swing their limbs and bite out of aggression. Pet chimps have mauled humans—even people they know and seemingly care about.
Thus, it's important to exercise caution when interacting with your chimp and monitor the situation closely if you allow other people to visit with your animal. It's also not recommended to allow chimps to interact with any other pets in the household, as they can potentially injure one another. Furthermore, if left with nothing to do, a chimp will quickly get bored and can cause serious damage to your home.
On the plus side, chimps' intelligence can be appealing to some pet owners. Chimps can be trained as service animals to help their owners with tasks, such as opening doors and picking up items. Some also can learn to communicate using sign language.
Because chimps are at least twice as strong as humans, they require a very sturdy enclosure to keep them contained when you are unable to watch them. They cannot be trusted left alone in your home.
You can construct a large outdoor enclosure for them with metal fencing and metal bars to form a secure ceiling. The door to the enclosure should have a strong lock, as chimps can easily learn how to open latches and knobs. Add ropes, swings, branches, balls, and other favorite toys to the enclosure. And make sure your animal always has access to shade. You also can keep them in a room in your house for short spells when you can't watch them. Child-proof the room as you would for a toddler. Plus, glass windows should be protected by bars to prevent a strong chimp from shattering them.
For the most part, though, expect to have your chimp with you or someone in your household the majority of the time to fulfill its social and activity needs.
What Do Chimpanzees Eat and Drink?
Chimpanzees are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and animals. Fruit, leaves, insects, eggs, tree bark, nuts, and occasionally even small animals are all part of a wild chimpanzee's diet.
In captivity, your pet's primary food source should be a formulated and nutritionally complete "monkey chow." Simply measure out the food in a bowl for your chimp each day—choose an unbreakable bowl, such as stainless steel—following package instructions for how much and how often to feed based on your animal's age and size. Chimps often get on a feeding routine and prefer their meals at the same time each day. Your chimp should also have access to a dish of fresh water at all times, which you refresh at least daily.
While these formulated diets offer much of what a chimpanzee needs, feeding them this way fails to encourage natural foraging behaviors—important mental stimulation for a chimp. Opening nuts, digging for insects, picking leaves off of branches, and biting into fruit and eggs are important to the well-being of a chimp. So offer these foods as a supplement to the formulated diet. And avoid giving your chimp any processed or fatty foods, as this will not support a long, healthy life.
In general, your chimp should eat about 4 percent of its body weight in food daily. That means if your chimp weighs 100 pounds, it should eat about 4 pounds of food a day, though this can vary based on an individual animal's health and activity level. Consult your veterinarian for the appropriate feeding schedule for your animal.
Common Health Problems
Regular veterinary visits should be a part of your chimp's life. And it's important to find a veterinarian who has ample experience dealing with chimps. Heart disease, dental disease, and diabetes are all common illnesses that pet chimpanzees are prone to. These diseases often arise from a poor diet and might present with lethargy or a lack of appetite. If this occurs, consult your vet as soon as possible.
Also, discuss vaccinations with your vet based on the diseases your animal might be exposed to. For instance, vaccination campaigns are in place in Africa to protect wild chimp populations from life-threatening diseases, such as ebola. In the U.S., your vet might recommend vaccinating for measles, polio, and tetanus.
Chimpanzees are very active animals that need a lot of exercise. In the wild, they frequently climb trees and swing from limbs, so they need structures in captivity that mimic trees. In zoos, chimp enclosures often include both real and man-made trees, ropes, and suspended nets on which resident chimpanzees can play and exercise. These are the sorts of environments that give captive chimps the physical activity they need to stay healthy and happy.
Purchasing a Chimpanzee
Before you take on a pet chimp, it's important to give the issue serious thought. Ask yourself: Will a chimp truly be able to have a happy, long, and normal primate life in your home? Will you be able to afford to care for a pet that will live for more than several decades?
You also must be sure you'll be able to manage your chimp as it grows in strength and keep it safely contained on your property. There have been cases of pet chimps escaping their enclosures and attacking people. You might even have to separate your chimp from visitors to your home if your chimp shows signs of aggression, such as attempting to bite them.
Do Your Research
These questions only brush the surface of what it means to be the owner of a chimp. Do your research, and talk to veterinarians, caretakers, zookeepers, and other experts. If you acquire a chimp from a breeder, be prepared to pay around $50,000 or more. If you adopt one, the fees vary widely. Any seller should be able to give you thorough information on the animal's origin, age, health history, and temperament. Again, a rescue organization is the best choice because its primary concern will be whether the chimp is a good match for your home. A major red flag is any seller that allows you to purchase a chimp without talking to you at length about its care demands.
Alternatives to Ownership
If you end up deciding that a chimp is not a good fit for your home, many chimp sanctuaries allow you to virtually "adopt" one of their animals. By participating in such a program, you contribute to the care of an animal and typically receive periodic photos and other updates.
It is also fun to visit chimps in zoos around the nation. Zoos generally keep chimps in large enclosures with other chimps and elaborate play structures. In this environment, you can watch chimps play, groom, and communicate with each other in a very natural way.
Similar Pets to the Chimpanzee
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Can you domesticate a chimpanzee?
You can not truly domesticate a chimpanzee. Young chimps are often playful and docile, but they tend to become more aggressive as they get older. Like humans, they can be moody or get angry when challenged, making them poor pets.
How long do chimpanzees live as pets?
While chimpanzees in the wild have shorter lifespans—they live into their 30s—captive chimps can live well into their 50s.
Do chimpanzees do better in their natural habitats than in captivity?
While chimps live shorter lives in their natural habitats due to natural hazards and diseases, they are wild animals. Keeping them safe from the dangers of their natural habitats is often considered cruel because captive chimps suffer from boredom, depression, and anxiety.