A macaque lies on paved ground with a chain around it's neck, with a human hand holding the chain

Pet Primates

Born Free and primatology experts agree that primates are completely ill-suited for private ownership. All primates have complex social, physical, behavioural, and environmental needs and have a well-developed capacity to feel pain, suffering and distress. Nonetheless, subject to certain restrictions in some circumstances, the sale and keeping of primates as pets in the UK and many other countries is currently legal.

An estimated 5,000 primates are being kept as pets in the UK, including marmosets, capuchins, squirrel monkeys and lemurs. However, due to a lack of licensing requirements, no exact figures exist. Rescue groups such as the RSPCA and Wild Futures reportedly receive approximately one call a week relating to the welfare of a captive monkey.

A small marmoset sits behind wire barsPet Shop Primates

In 2014, Born Free commissioned an investigation into the sale of primates in licensed pet shops in England to contribute to a better understanding of the scale and scope of problems relating to the sale and keeping of primates as pets. With information gathered under Freedom of Information from local authorities, Born Free identified 21 pet shops in England licensed to sell primates. We released our report Pet Shop Primates based on the findings of this investigation.

Pet Shop Primates revealed:
  • Pet shops were willing to sell single primates without at least verifying with the potential purchaser that the primate would be housed with others of the same species
  • Staff at one shop did not appear to know that a marmoset was a monkey
  • Pet shops were inconsistent in their advice regarding where and how to keep primates – for example, recommending that primates could be housed in a spare room or garage
  • There were concerns for the welfare of some primates kept in pet shops, with monkeys in one shop on sale in cages traditionally used to keep parrots

The investigation focused solely on licensed pet shops with high street premises. Private sellers, online advertisers and animal dealers were not included. It is highly likely the majority of the trade in primates occurs away from the high street.

A squirrel monkey sitting crouched on the floor eating


Although existing laws in Britain, including the Animal Welfare Act 2006, should offer all pets, and those for sale, a certain level of protection, there is often confusion over their application and enforcement or they lack specific details in the first place. England, Scotland and Wales are now covered by The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) Regulations 2018 (Schedule 3 is specific to ‘selling animals as pets’).

Legislation covers the sale of animals in pet shops, requiring any person keeping a pet shop to be licensed by their local authority, which should inspect the premises to ensure basic provisions for the animals’ welfare are being met. However, current legislation lacks species-specific guidance.

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (DWAA) requires inspection and licensing for some species of animals (including some primates) considered to pose a risk of human injury. The DWAA is first and foremost public health and safety legislation, and covers animal welfare only secondarily. The schedule to the DWAA lists the species that require a licence to be kept. However, the most commonly kept species of primate in the UK, the marmoset, is not listed.

All primates are listed on Annexes A and B of Council Regulation (EC) No 338/97 of the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations, which implement the provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The ownership of a primate as a pet for non-commercial purposes does not require paperwork under these Regulations.

In order to buy a primate listed on Annex A, the person selling the specimen is required to have a sales certificate issued under Article 10 of the EU CITES Regulations. Primates on Annex B can be traded without CITES paperwork within the EU providing there is proof of “legal acquisition”.

In 2010, the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Privately Kept Non-Human Primates was published by Defra. This code of practice applies to primates kept in private ownership and acts as a guide to meeting the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act. Born Free believes that even if the code is expanded to provide more detail, it will never be able to guarantee the welfare of primates kept as pets. Nonetheless, our Pet Shop Primates investigation indicated several areas where purchasing primates from pet shops may not meet the current guidelines in the Code of Practice.

In 2020, it was announced that the UK Government intended to ban the trade in and keeping of primates as pets in England. Born Free submitted our concerns and recommendations to the government consultation, which outlined proposals for a two-tier system, with specialist keepers licensed to keep, breed, and trade in primates, while other keepers would be allowed to keep their animals for the rest of their natural lives, subject to certain conditions.

In May 2021, the UK Government’s Animal Welfare Action Plan, published by DEFRA, confirmed the intention to legislate to prohibit primates as pets. Rather than a prohibition, the plans created a licensing system as described above.

Legislation to restrict primate ownership in England became law in March 2024 under the Animal Welfare (Primate Licences) (England) Regulations. While accompanying Standards are currently under development by DEFRA. The legislation applies to the trade in and keeping of all primates in private ownership. As a key stakeholder, Born Free provided input into the proposed Standards and will continue to push for stringent and robust licensing criteria prior to the April 2026 licensing deadline for primate owners, while urging devolved administrations to adopt an outright ban.


Born Free is convinced no regulatory system can safeguard the welfare of primates when kept privately and that a ban on the trade and private keeping of all species of primates should be introduced across the UK. In the meantime, Born Free is calling for:

  • The UK Government to fulfil its manifesto promise and pass into law the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill
  • Local authorities to ensure pet shop inspections are carried out regularly and that the shops’ licences are kept under review to reflect current stock
  • Mandatory publication and independent review of mortality data from pet suppliers, pet shops and breeders
  • An extension of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 to include pet shops, ensuring veterinary inspection and licensing continuity

You can help us take action by writing to your MP and asking for a review of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act:

Write to Your MP

You can also support Born Free’s work to end the keeping of primates as pets, by making a donation today:

Donate Now