Chimp on His Shoulder

A glance at the online inventory of Peoria-based Wild Animal World reads like a passenger manifest for Noah's Ark. Claiming to be the largest dealer in exotic animals in the United States, Wild Animal World can deliver almost any species imaginable to your doorstep, whether it be a Watusi ($2,500) a 3-month-old female giraffe ($45,000), a hand-raised buffalo ($1,000), a pair of breeding jaguars ($7,000), a female red kangaroo ($4,000), a 9-week-old Bengal tiger cub ($18,000) or an albino skunk ($200). Wild Animal World's biggest business is in monkeys, though, from white-throated capuchins to snow macaques, marmosets and spider monkeys, ranging in price from $1,100 to $9,000 each.

But the regulations imposed by the State of Arizona on Wild Animal World two years ago have founder Randall Davies and his fiancée, Memory Price, packing up their business this week and relocating to Nevada, where restrictions on the primate trade, they say, aren't such a monkey on their backs.

"Two years ago, this lady at the State Vet's office ruined it for everyone," Davies complains.

The lady is Dr. Mira Leslie, an authority on exotics and primates and the public health veterinarian for the State of Arizona. In 1999, Leslie, alarmed at an increase in bites and other incidents involving pet monkeys, compiled enough statistics to convince the state Game and Fish Department to tighten the regulations on the monkey trade in Arizona.

The revised rule requires that monkeys be half-grown before they're bought or sold, and that they be fully tested for species-hopping diseases, particularly herpes B -- a virus that is fatal to humans and carried by 80 to 90 percent of macaques in the wild.

Disease, Davies says, has never been a problem, but having to sell half-grown monkeys is. To make matters worse, he adds, Game and Fish's so-called "Monkey Bite" rule prohibits monkeys from leaving their owners' property and venturing out into public.

"Before, we would take them river rafting, to drive-in movies, to the lake and go fishing, water-skiing, to the bank, every public place that wasn't a food establishment," Davies recalls. "Like Hooters, yeah, Hooters. We used to sit out on the patio there and have a lot of fun. . . . We never had any problems."

But other people did. In a study conducted in 1997 by the Centers for Disease Control with the help of Dr. Leslie, seven cases of monkey bites or scratches were examined, and three of them revealed the presence of herpes B. Moreover, four of those seven incidents occurred in Arizona, including one involving an infected, 7-week-old, diaper-wearing cynomolgus who shared chewing gum with its owners and bit an adult at a bar. Another Arizona case involved a macaque, one of eight at an unlicensed day-care center, who bit a child severely. Still another referred to a 2-year-old cynomolgus who climbed over a fence to bite a neighbor child's toe and buttocks.

Jim Devos, chief of research at Game and Fish, explains the reasons behind the December 1999 amendment: "When we were originally discussing adopting the Monkey Bite' rule, we were getting 40 reports of bites a year. Since it went into effect, we are seeing about one a month."

Davies still maintains that monkeys make fine pets. But there are no simians swinging from the trees or tigers prowling his yard in the quiet neighborhood just off Peoria Avenue. Davies doesn't keep the animals he advertises for sale on hand anymore. He is instead a go-between, a broker between individuals and institutions looking to buy or sell exotic breeds.

Although Davies transferred the business to his fiancée in January, he still talks like he's got both hands on the wheel. "I've been in the business for 20 years," he says. "First I had monkeys as pets, then I bought a monkey business that was for sale. It started in the basement with lab cages and grew to a ranch with real nice cages."

His career as a monkey trader, however, has not been without controversy.

Davies once owned Monkeys Unlimited, a Cincinnati-based primate clearinghouse that ran ads in USA Today in the late '80s, advertising monkeys for sale. A 1999 book on exotic-animal trafficking, Animal Underworld, describes Davies' business as "a notorious primate mail order operation run out of a filthy Cincinnati warehouse." Author Alan Green also claims that Davies "dumped huge quantities of baby monkeys into the pet trade," before shutting down in Ohio in 1991 and moving to Phoenix.

"We were only in that shop for three months," Davies responds, "then we moved to a beautiful ranch. And what does he mean by dumping monkeys'? People purchased them."

Regardless, Davies claims that it was overregulation, and not bad press, that ruined his Peoria enterprise. Davies estimates he sells between two and seven monkeys a month, which he says is considerably lower than his pre-"Monkey Bite" volume.

"Arizona used to be a great place to sell monkeys, and it still would be, except I can only sell half-grown monkeys, so we don't even bother with marketing or selling here anymore."

His client base, he says, includes politicians, private citizens and celebrities. "I just sold a monkey to Hugh Hefner last week, a capuchin," he claims. Interest in exotic pets has been high in recent years, and if it weren't for Arizona's draconian policies, he says, he'd still have tigers and baboons as pets. But Davies doesn't have any exotics at all anymore, not even Alfy, the overalls-clad baboon clinging to Randy on the back of an ATV in pictures on his Web site. "I got rid of Alfy last year," he says. "We're trying to get everything ready to move."

Davies and Price have looked at several areas in Nevada and will drive out next week, hoping for 100 acres or so next to a river. There, they'll start up again, unfettered by regulations.

"There are thousands of people like me across the country who want to have exotic animals," Davies says. "The animals need us. Their countries are being destroyed. Fires destroy the rain forest; in some countries, poachers are still poaching off of reserve areas. And farmlands, the farmers kill the monkeys because they eat their vegetables, and they kill the cats because they eat their livestock. In our country, we keep them and breed them and care for them. If it weren't for this country, we wouldn't have some of these animals today."