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Flea Markets: The New Monkey Black Market?

Erika Fleury January 25, 2016

It may be illegal to sell primates to private individuals within the state of Kentucky, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Even more surprisingly, such illegal sales often occur in broad daylight and in public places throughout local communities.

Increasingly, there are reports of vendors selling small monkeys at Kentucky flea markets. Hidden amongst dusty furniture and vintage comic books, it’s not uncommon to spy display cages housing infant monkeys such as marmosets and tamarins.

The dealers usually hail from border states like Indiana and Tennessee, where private ownership of primates is legal. Upon arrival in Kentucky, they make easy sales of the exotic animals because the animals are not easy to procure in the state otherwise. The sale is particularly favorable for the dealer because there is no responsibility after that! If a person has a problem with their monkey, or wants to return him or her for any reason, there is literally no way to do so. Have you ever returned something purchased at a flea market? Of course not.

Caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware”, is a standard principle for any marketplace, but only scratches the surface of the issues involved with unregulated sale of nonhuman primates – who are not only endangered animals worthy of protection, but who also have specific needs of which the average person is unaware.

There are many reasons why primates make terrible pets. In order to be healthy, primates must have a balanced and varied diet, regular medical care, large areas in which to swing, nest, and play, and they need social experiences. Primates are all highly social creatures, and one of the worst things that can be done to a primate is to raise him or her in isolation. When monkeys or apes are deprived of proper care, they suffer both physically and psychologically. Aggression commonly occurs when a primate grows out of infancy and becomes stronger and more independent. It’s at this point, if not before, that a person who blindly purchased an infant monkey to cuddle and swaddle starts to regret that decision.

And then what?

Primate Rescue Center staff members field calls daily from people desperate to rehome their once beloved pet monkeys. However, demand is higher than space available at sanctuaries throughout the country. Often, sanctuaries have to turn down such requests because it would require the building of a new enclosure to house the animal. This costs money, of course, and by the time sanctuaries get such frantic phone calls, oftentimes callers have already spent all they can afford on their exotic pet.

Owners of pet primates are then stuck with an animal they are unable to properly care for. The animals themselves are stuck living in unhealthy and inappropriate living conditions. The sanctuary is stuck because although it wants to help, it cannot take in more animals than can be responsibly cared for. The only people not stuck in this desperate situation are the exotic animal dealers who swept into the state, made some quick money, and left behind a trail of doomed pets in their wake.

The life expectancy of marmosets and tamarins in captivity is 15-20 years, illustrating that this problem is not a short-term one. The Primate Rescue Center has already received phone calls from the regretful owners of monkeys purchased at area flea markets, and the number of calls is sure to grow as long as consumers continue doing business with exotic animal breeders and dealers.

Kentucky wildlife officials were notified of illegal commerce in marmosets at a recent flea market. By the time they were able to seek out the offending vendor, there was only one cage left on display. Almost all the vendor’s monkeys had been sold throughout the day - yet another influx of illegal pets headed off to unprepared homes throughout the state.


If you know of a person illegally selling, purchasing or housing a nonhuman primate, please contact your local Fish and Wildlife Department.

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