Monkey Business

June 25, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on June 25, 2008.

With an ongoing war in Iraq, $4 a gallon gasoline, Midwest floods, a credit crunch and creeping inflation, rest assured, our congressmen have their eyes on the ball. By a vote of 302–96 last week, the House of Representatives passed the Captive Primate Safety Act, a bold step on the road to outlawing pet monkeys. The House bill boasts 26 co‐​sponsors, including three from Illinois, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrats Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez. The Senate is expected to take up the companion bill in the next few weeks.

In lieu of addressing more pressing issues, Congress has once again decided to meddle in an arcane aspect of Americans’ lives. The proposed legislation would amend the Lacey Act, which states that it’s “unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce any live animal of any prohibited wildlife species.”

Monkeys are soon to be among the prohibited. Exotic pets usually are covered under common law using a standard of strict liability—e.g., if you own a tarantula and it bites someone, you’re liable. So why the change now?

Animal rights aside, one thing is clear: This is not the business of the federal government. In criminalizing pet ownership, the nanny state is going too far, and few can argue against the idea that making monkey trafficking a federal crime borders on the absurd. A Heritage Foundation report released last week estimates there are at least 4,450 federal crimes on the books. As John Baker, a Louisiana State University law professor writes, “The federal government is supposedly a government of limited powers and, therefore, limited jurisdiction. Each new crime expands the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement.”

Imagine the getting‐​to‐​know‐​you chitchat in prison:

“What are you in for?”

“Possession of a monkey.”

Probably not a good way to earn the esteem of fellow inmates.

Did Congress step in because of an absence of pre‐​existing monkey regulations? No. The monkey industry does not operate in a vacuum; states have various restrictions on primate ownership, varying from licensing to breeding restrictions to total bans. If monkey‐​owning is your hot‐​button issue, as opposed to, say, taxes or abortion, you are free to move to a more monkey‐​permissive, or anti‐​monkey, state.

The Captive Primate Safety Act appropriates $5 million in fiscal year 2009 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to hire additional personnel to enforce the law. Though it’s just a drop in the bucket of a proposed $2.4 trillion federal budget, it seems unnecessary to expand policing of pet monkeys. The bill is not likely to affect a huge percentage of the population. In 2005, the Humane Society of the United States estimated that there were approximately 15,000 pet primates in the U.S. Apparently the federal government is no longer content to raid our wallets, tap our phones or monitor our bedrooms. Now the feds can’t keep their hands off our monkeys. Even under the guise of “interstate commerce,” monkey possession hardly can be considered an issue of pressing significance. Yet the majority of legislators seem to think it is. Not to mix metaphors, but these days, don’t they have bigger fish to fry?

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