Macaque -pet -lipstick _2015_04_24

Have you ever seen a macaque wearing red lipstick? I hadn't either, until earlier this week, when a video clip surfaced on the Daily Mail website showing an Ohio woman applying make-up to her pet macaque named Angel.

While it's good practice not to buy into every attention-grabbing animal news story you read online, the extent to which people keep exotic pets and treat them inappropriately actually makes this one seem quite plausible, and deeper digging confirms it.

In the complete video posted to YouTube in January, the monkey sits on a bathroom sink while her owner, Teresa Bullock, plucks out her eyebrows and applies moisturising cream, eyeliner, mascara and then the red lipstick. Meanwhile, the monkey smiles. The Mail reports that the animal is a Java macaque, which means that it is most likely a crab-eating macaque, also known as a long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis), from the Indonesian island of Java.

To the untrained eye, that smile might appear as if the animal is enjoying the makeover, but in macaque societies, it's a sign of stress or fear called submissive grinning or the bared-teeth display. "The bared-teeth occurs primarily in response to threat or aggression, or in response to an approach by a dominant individual," writes primatologist Dario Maestripieri in the journal Evolution of Communication. "In this context, the most likely meaning of the bared-teeth is 'I am afraid' or 'Do not attack me,' or a combination of both."

The monkey can also be seen in the video opening and closing her mouth. That "lip-smacking", as it is known, is also a sign of submission or fear. "Lip-smacking may be displayed by the victim of aggression but usually only after another submissive signal such as the bared-teeth …has occurred," writes Maestripieri. Which, perhaps not coincidentally, is precisely the order in which the monkey in the video displayed her submissive signals. 

Bullock also has a male crab-eating macaque that she calls Bugs. "He's pretty content, got his pet cats, his own trampoline, got a TV, they go in and out of the heated area," she told FOX19 in 2013. According to that report, she also owns dogs, cats and pigs.

It's no question that these animals do not make suitable pets. In the wild and in semi-naturalistic, ethically operated, accredited captive environments like zoos and sanctuaries, macaques of all sorts – there are 22 species in all – live in large groups ranging in size from ten to colonies of more than one hundred individuals. Females live out their lives in the groups into which they were born, while males seek out a new social group once they go through puberty. 

Macaque societies have fairly strict linear dominance hierarchies, with males typically outranking females, and older individuals outranking younger ones. Related females rank alongside each other, for example, with daughters ranking just below their mothers. Angel and Bugs, living out their lives with humans and a menagerie of domestic animals, live a life that is nothing close to the one for which they've evolved.

These Old World monkeys can also be quite clever. Crab-eating macaques have even been observed using tools, selecting rocks and using them as anvils for cracking open shellfish and nuts. 

From an ethical perspective, not only are these animals unsuited for life among humans as pets, but in an even more wanton disregard for their welfare, Bullock seems to enjoy pretending that they're glorified dolls. A quick perusal of her Twitter account shows that while most of her tweets are rather mundane, she also dresses Angel in pink sparkly dresses and it looks like she may take her for rides on motorcycles and watercraft. 

"Angel…[has] health issues so she is a little more human than most because she has to have diabetic shots twice daily and a heart pill," said Bullock according to the Daily Mail report. That line of reasoning is also quite nonsensical, as diabetes and heart diseases are far from uniquely human; like most diseases, they occur in a variety of non-human animals. Diabetes, for example, afflicts domestic pets like dogs and cats, small mammals like rabbits, as well as a range of primates like woolly monkeys, sakis and even chimpanzees.

According to one study conducted by researchers at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, nearly a third of zoos report having at least one diabetic primate, and while it's more common in Old World monkeys like macaques, it also occurs in New World monkeys. Nearly 80% of the diabetic primates discovered in that study were females, like Angel. The researchers suspect that diabetes mellitus ("type 2") occurs in captive primates for the same reason it develops in humans: high-calorie diets and a sedentary lifestyle. Thankfully, zoos are in a much better position to diagnose, assess, treat and prevent such illnesses than are individual exotic pet owners.

From a legal perspective, Bullock may be in the clear. While it became illegal in Ohio to keep a "dangerous wild animal" on January 1, 2014 (and macaques like Angel and Bugs fall into that category), animals acquired before October 1, 2013 were allowed to remain with their owners as long as they were registered and permitted.

Until laws regarding animal welfare apply equally across the United States, it is concerning that owners of exotic pets, like Bullock, are completely free to treat the animals they own this way, and to advertise it online. How many others will see Bullock's YouTube videos and become convinced that they, too, want to own a monkey? It is depressingly easy to find one.

Top header image: Sergey Pisarevskiy, Flickr