Illegal pet monkey taken from IL to TX sanctuary: rescue


Willis the vervet monkey is now at a Texas sanctuary after Born Free USA says he was kept illegally as a pet in Chicago.

Ruth Montiel Arias/Born Free USA

For three years, Willis the vervet monkey spent life as a pet in Chicago, where he was kept in a “tiny cage,” according to an animal welfare nonprofit.

Willis was kept as a pet illegally, WTTW reported, in a cage made for parrots.

That all changed when Born Free USA and Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC) teamed up for “an urgent rescue mission” last month, according to a Nov. 15 press release from Born Free USA.

“His life changed completely when he was taken into the care of CACC,” said Liz Tyson, Born Free USA’s programs director and head of sanctuary. “He was destined to spend more than 20 years in isolation in a tiny cage, but now will receive expert care and, most importantly, will have the opportunity to live with other monkeys in large enclosures where he can truly be himself.”

Willis made a 1,300-mile trip from Illinois to Born Free USA’s south Texas sanctuary, where the nonprofit says he will spend the rest of his life.

Vervet monkeys have a lifespan of 24 years in captivity, or 12 years in the wild, according to the New England Primate Conservancy.

In a video posted to Facebook, Willis is seen climbing and jumping across an enrichment ladder at the sanctuary.

“He is already having a great time,” Born Free USA said. “Despite his rough beginnings, Willis is one of the most joyful and playful monkeys we have ever met!”

While he “settled in quickly,” the group said it will take time before he is interacting with other monkeys.

Keeping monkeys as pets

Born Free USA CEO Angela Grimes said Willis is one of five monkeys the group has welcomed in the last five months. Four were kept as pets.

“Willis’ arrival at the sanctuary is part of a larger trend we are seeing of pet primates being relinquished to sanctuaries,” she said, adding that some are confiscated and others are surrendered.

“Some owners contact us because they’ve been bitten or attacked — a common occurrence,” she continued. “Others notice the animals seem ill, stressed, or otherwise unwell. Still others realize they lack the space and resources to care for the animals. All of this points to one inescapable fact: monkeys and other nonhuman primates are not meant to be kept as pets and forcing them to live alongside humans as pets is harmful to the animals and potentially dangerous for all concerned.”

In Illinois, it is illegal for private people to own, breed or sell monkeys, though that is not the case for all states, according to WTTW.

“Despite the fact that keeping a pet monkey is illegal in Illinois, Willis the vervet monkey slipped through the cracks,” Rep. Bobby Rush said. “The inadequate patchwork of state legislation regulating private primate possession makes it far too easy for individuals to purchase these wild animals from the internet and transport them over state lines.

“While I am grateful that Willis is now safe and in the care of an accredited, legitimate sanctuary, this story could have ended far differently — and dangerous predicaments like these are sadly all too common. The story of Willis is exactly why I cosponsored and am pushing for passage of the Captive Primate Safety Act, which would prohibit the trade and private possession of primates like Willis as pets.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky added that she is a cosponsor of H.R. 3135, the Captive Primate Safety Act.

“The plight of Willis the monkey clearly demonstrates that a federal solution is needed to ensure that primates are not able to be kept as pets,” she said.

Subcommittee hearings for the bill were last held in July.

Kaitlyn Alanis is a McClatchy National Real-Time Reporter based in Kansas. She is an agricultural communications & journalism alumna of Kansas State University.

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