Tracie Perry travels around the United States selling people monkeys. She's a U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed monkey breeder, broker and transporter, and sometimes might travel from the tip of California through Texas and to South Florida in one giant monkey drop-off trip.
So it was convenient for her when, while she was driving from a fellow breeder's facility in Mission, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the buyers lived in the Houston area, where Perry was already headed.
Before leaving Mission, she and the breeder, who was selling two baby vervet monkeys, FaceTimed with the buyer, named Brittany, to show her the facility where the monkey was from and to make sure the woman wasn't "scamming them," Perry said. Brittany had been in contact with the breeder for a year with questions about monkey ownership, Perry said, and so she seemed committed. Before leaving, Perry asked for a $350 transportation fee to be paid right away, before the $6,750 the two baby monkeys would cost. Brittany opted to pay using Walmart's money transfer system since she didn't have PayPal, Perry's preferred method of payment.
That money, at least, was real.
It would be another thousand miles or so up the Interstate before the Secret Service came to the bank Perry stopped at in Illinois while driving back home to Missouri, asking her about that $6,000 in fake cash a person had just used to purchase cute baby monkeys, as KTRK first reported.
Texas has virtually no laws for exotic pet ownership unless the animal is listed as “dangerous," like a lion or a baboon (baby monkeys: not so) — meaning this rando Brittany did not need any sort of license or training to purchase a monkey whose natural habitat is the savanna of southern or western Africa. That's why Perry says she at least tries to spend about an hour with each new monkey owner to give him or her a little training herself. "Usually I have to hamper down a little bit so you'll focus [on] how to take care of it, because usually people are just like, 'Oh my gosh, give me my baby!'" Perry said. "But I have to be kind of rude and say, 'You can't touch the baby — pay attention to me. I need to tell you how to feed them, how to change their diapers.'"
In this case, though, looking back, Perry said that when she met Brittany in Houston, she was not as excited as her usual customers, who are often obsessed with their new baby pets and act like children finding a puppy in a box on Christmas morning. “She really didn't have any questions," Perry said. "She said they'd been to a movie, and she was acting like she was ready to take them and go home.”
Brittany handed her a Wells Fargo envelope containing the $6,750, nearly $6,000 of which was counterfeit, the Secret Service later said, and drove on her way. When Perry tried depositing it at a bank on the border of Illinois near St. Louis, the bank teller called the police and Secret Service, who wanted to know where Perry got what the police report describes as “high-quality” counterfeit cash.
Now, Perry said, she's concerned that the monkeys may not be so safe with this person — a concern echoed by exotic-animal advocates, too.
Kate Dylewsky at Born Free USA said the fact that a baby monkey was purchased with thousands in counterfeit cash doesn't actually surprise her — she described it as all part of the “seedy underworld of the primate pet trade.” Because monkey owners are not required to be licensed or regulated, it makes room for pretty sketchy buyers like this one to enter the market stealthily, Dylewsky said.
“It's crazy — if you just go on Google and type in 'buy a vervet' or 'buy a monkey,' you're going to get classified ads. You're going to get breeders' websites where you can truly just order one,” Dylewsky said. “In a lot of states, it's easier than adopting a dog or a cat. It's absurd.”
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Even if Brittany's money was legitimate, Dylewsky said, the baby vervet probably still would not be safe. Despite the fact that the monkeys are all cute and fuzzy and attached to their owners as babies, Dylewsky said once they reach sexual maturity, their behavior entirely changes, and the monkeys become aggressive. Born Free USA actually tracks “exotic animal incidents” involving exotic pets on the loose: Just last November in Harlingen, Texas, a wild monkey running through a residential neighborhood bit an 84-year-old woman.
“No matter how well-trained the person may be, there is no good way to care for a monkey in a home. It's just impossible. These are wild animals. They can never be domesticated. They have natural instincts and behaviors that they need to express.”
Although Dylewsky said Born Free USA's ultimate goal is to convince lawmakers to outlaw exotic pet ownership in all 50 states, she said that more regulation, at the very least, could have prevented an incident like this one.
The representative from the U.S. Secret Service declined to comment on the case since it is an active investigation. Perry said an investigator told her that the woman apparently didn't even live in Pearland as she had claimed. The Houston Press was unable to contact her.