We’re All in the Family

By Hilary Hemmes-Kavanaugh, Primatologist

It’s a beautiful day at the zoo. After navigating the chaotic maze of a map you find yourself looking at a primate that you can’t name but you are certain of one thing, it is definitely a monkey. However, you may be wrong. Just because an animal is a primate does not mean it is a monkey. Unknown to many monkeys and apes are genetically and physically different from one another.

One of the quickest ways to determine if you are looking at an ape or not is to ask yourself:

“Do I see a tail?”

If there is no tail then the primate at hand is an ape and not a monkey or prosimian. Apes are large bodied primates known for larger brains, long mother-infant rearing and impressive tool use (to name a few). Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), gorillas (Gorilla), bonobos (Pan paniscus), orangutans (Pongo), gibbons (Hylobatidae), and humans (Homo sapiens) are all apes.

Monkeys are incredibly diverse and unspecific in their features, habitat and behavior. They can be found everywhere from the snowy mountains of Japan to the soggy rainforests of Brazil. Capuchins, Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) and baboons are all common examples of monkeys.

Interestingly, there are only 5 distinct species of great apes compared to the 260+ species of monkeys. Great apes tend to attract a wider audience due to their numerous appearances in books, movies, and TV shows. They also are more genetically and behaviorally similar to humans. You most likely have had a moment where see a gorilla or chimpanzee at a zoo or video online and can’t shake the uncanny resemblance we share.

It is without question that behind those eyes lies an extremely sentient being looking back at you, however-we are here to promote that the same admiration and consideration need to be offered to other non-human primates that are in need of a sanctuary. In the United States alone there are over 100,000 monkeys being kept in laboratories for invasive and non-invasive medical and psychological tests. They are used in many of the same experiments as chimpanzees before they were phased out of laboratory testing beginning with the CHIMP act in 2013.

Unfortunately, it is quite obvious by the lack of infrastructure and finances that monkeys do not receive the same advocacy for retirement that chimpanzees have. Until we have rallied the same effort to develop sanctuaries for monkeys, too many will live their entire existence in labs, never experiencing the fulfillment of retirement to sanctuary.

Monkeys are primates, chimpanzees are primates, and yes, you are a primate. We are all in the family- and together we can give back to the monkeys who have given us so much.

FOOTNOTE: Primates are separated into three categories: apes, monkeys, or prosimians. They are all genetically and physically different from one another. Prosimians are the only primates native to Madagascar (lemurs) but are also found in Africa and Asia. Many are very small (excluding lemurs), nocturnal and eat insects as a large part of their diet.

There are two types of apes: Great apes, and small bodied apes. Gibbons and Siamangs are small bodied apes. Finally there are two types of monkeys, old world monkeys (OWM) and new world monkeys (NWM). NWM are native to South America and OWM are found throughout Africa and Asia.