Chimpanzee: Species Profile

Characteristics, Housing, Diet, and Other Information

High angle view of chimpanzee in forest

Luca Lopez / Getty Images

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, as they grow, this intelligence can lead to boredom and destructive behavior. Plus, chimpanzees thrive in social settings, and adult chimps can be twice as strong as humans. 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.

Species Overview

Common Name: Chimpanzee

Scientific Name: Pan troglodytes

Adult Size: 3 to 4 feet tall on average, weighing between 60 and 150 pounds (males are typically larger than females)

Life Expectancy: 50 years or more in captivity

Chimpanzee Behavior and Temperament

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, grooming each other, and playing together. Young chimps nurse for the first five years of their life and are considered adults at 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 their humans.

But once they reach adulthood they can become quite physical and demanding, leaving many chimp owners unable to control their animal. 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 had previously shown no issue with.

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 a draw to some pet owners. They 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.

Housing the Chimpanzee

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.

Food and Water

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.

Is It Legal to 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.

Moreover, it is very important that you know the origin of the chimpanzee before doing business with a seller. There are unscrupulous sellers in the pet trade that take chimps out of the wild in Africa, where their population is endangered. Hunters shoot the mothers to take their babies to sell as pets. Likewise, in the U.S. breeders will take babies from their mothers far too early in order to sell them to people. Consequently, these young chimps will not learn proper social etiquette. If you can provide a good home for a chimp, it's best to adopt one from a reputable rescue organization where many pet chimps end up, rather than perpetuating the negative practices of the pet trade.

Purchasing Your 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 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.

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.

Furthermore, if you end up finding out that a chimp is not a good fit for your home, there are many chimp sanctuaries that 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.

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