Too Much Monkey Business: Pop Stars And Their Pet Monkeys

Every kid dreams about having a pet monkey. Inspired by Indiana Jones or Aladdin, they picture a peanut-loving sidekick perched on our shoulder, wearing a funny little vest and pulling pranks on unsuspecting grown-ups.

Thankfully, most of us grow out of the dream of a pet monkey. Having a pet monkey won’t be anywhere near as cute or charming as you hope. Primates aren’t meant to live with people. Bringing them into our homes courts could mean disaster for us and our neighbors.

“There’s this myth that they can be domesticated and sort of fit this human mold to be companion pets, but it’s just not the reality,” Eileen Dunnington, Executive Director of Lexington, Kentucky’s Primate Rescue Center, said. “There’s a general safety and public safety issue. It’s not just the individual that has the pet monkey in their home, but the people in their community. Because if that monkey gets out, it can be a danger to others.”

At best case monkey pets require ‘round the clock care, including diapering. At worst, they violently turn on their owners, like the Connecticut chimpanzee who chewed off its owner’s face and hands in 2009.

Really, any adult who actually buys a monkey would have to be an overgrown and over-indulged child with limitless resources and no one who ever tells them no. So it’s no surprise music stars from Elvis to Michael Jackson and Justin Beiber, have owned monkeys as pets.

The pet monkey fad exploded after World War II when the American economy was booming and suburbs were sprouting up all over the country. In the late 1960s, men thumbing through magazines like Field & Stream or Boy’s Life could encounter ads offering a “Darling Pet Monkey” for $18.95. The monkeys were described as “almost human with its warm eyes.” The dealers, writing from Animal Farm in Florida, said a monkey ate the same food as humans and “even likes lollipops.” The ad promised monkeys were easy to care for and train and even guaranteed live delivery.

While living in California in the early 60s, Johnny Cash had a pet monkey, Jethro, named after the Kenneth C. “Jethro” Burns of the popular country duo Homer and Jethro. In her book I Walked the Line, Cash’s wife Vivian remembered adoring him, writing “he was so much fun.” Vivian would walk down the street with Jethro hand in hand or pull him in a wagon. “And I swear,” Vivian said, “Homer had Johnny’s personality. He was funny and smart, but that little monkey had a mind of his own.” I’m not sure what became of Jethro, but Cash kept a lot of pets around into his later life, including a testy ostrich that gored Cash one day at the singer’s farm in Bon Aqua, Tennessee. Cash had to have surgery and blamed the incident for getting him hooked on painkillers.

Cash’s fellow Sun Records alumnus Elvis Presley had a three-foot-tall, 40 pound chimp named Scatter. Scatter belonged to a Memphis cartoonist before accompanying the King to Hollywood during Elvis’s film career. Scatter became the pride of perpetually adolescent prankster Elvis, who had no problem changing the chimp’s diaper or turning him loose on couples copulating behind closed doors. Scatter had free rein to drink, paw at women and generally raise hell. According to controversial Elvis biographer Albert Goldman, Elvis had his chauffeur drive Scatter around town just to get a reaction out of bewildered onlookers.

Elvis and his cronies apparently found such behavior hilarious. Eventually, though, the King lost interest in his pet chimp. Scatter was shipped back to Graceland. Scatter might have enjoyed his time with the King. But even the Jungle Room wasn’t enough to keep him happy forever. In the late 1960s, he bit one of Elvis’ maids and was found dead in his cage not long afterward. When Elvis sang his cover of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” in his 1968 film Stay Away, Joe, it was a fitting end of the Scatter era.

Perhaps the most famous of all music celebrity chimps was Michael Jackson’s Bubbles. Born in April, 1983, as the popularity of Thriller was at its height, Bubbles became a fixture of Jackson’s “Wacko Jacko” phase, wandering the halls of Neverland and traveling with his master. Bubbles became a celebrity in his own right who sipped tea with the mayor of Osaka and inspired Jeff Koons’ 1988 porcelain sculpture “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” which fetched $5.6 million at a 2001 art auction. The darling of the King of Pop, Bubbles, as is true of all chimps, became more aggressive as he got older. In 2004, he was shipped off to an ape sanctuary in Florida. Jackson died in 2009, but Bubbles is still with us.

While some states have banned private ownership of primates, there’s no national law, just a confusing patchwork of regulations that vary state by state; sometimes county by county. Thousands of monkeys are kept as pets in the United States but with the monkeys acquired through black market sources and kept in secrecy, exact numbers are elusive. Project ChimpCARE estimates there are 2,200 chimpanzees living in United States sanctuaries, zoos, research facilities and private residences today, more than twice the number estimated in their home range country of Tanzania in East Africa.

Recent monkey pet owners include musicians Chris Brown and Justin Bieber. Brown’s monkey business was short-lived. In 2018, an Instagram video of Brown giving his daughter a capuchin monkey as a birthday present prompted authorities to seize the monkey and charge Brown with two counts of having a restricted species without a permit.

German authorities seized Bieber’s capuchin monkey, “O. G. Mally,” who the Canadian singer named for hip hop producer, animal trafficker and alleged prostitution ring runner Mally Mall. Bieber tried to bring Mally into Munich against the advice of wiser counsel in his entourage. As the Biebs told GQ, “honestly, everyone told me not to bring the monkey. Everybody. Everyone told me not to bring the monkey. I was like ‘It’s gonna be fine, guys!”

Despite the pop star’s confidence, the Germans were, characteristically, sticklers for rules. After German authorities determined the monkey lacked proper vaccination records or proof of purchase, they took the monkey. Bieber would later concede, “It was the farthest thing from fine.

Mally found a new home in a German zoo but had trouble adjusting. Like many primates who wind up as pets, he was taken from his mother at a too early age. “These little guys are taken from their mothers within days after birth,” Dunnigan said “That is in and of itself one of the most traumatic things that can happen to them.”

Dunnigan added: “In the wild, they stay attached to their mothers and don’t leave her body for almost an entire year after they’re born.”

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