MONKEYS and meerkats have gone on sale at East Lancashire's largest pet store — prompting a storm of protest from animal rights campaigners.

One animal protection group said selling the wild animals was 'cruel' and another group said it deplored the actions of Blackburn-based Aquamania.

Craig Redmond, of the Captive Animals Protection Society said: "They are such social animals and have specialist needs."

And he added that meerkats were burrowing creatures and were likely to 'trash your sofa and carpet'.

Aquamania bosses said they had received threats and were planning to make a complaint to police.

They insisted the animals would only be sold once any potential buyer had been thoroughly researched.

The borough council has also been criticised for granting a licence allowing the store in Higher Audley Street, to sell the animals.

Aquamania opened in the 28,000sq ft site of the former Tommy Balls last year becoming one of the largest pet stores in the country.

Boss Ashley Cook said they spent £10,000 building an enclosure to house two pairs of meerkats and four marmoset monkeys.

He said that each animal would cost £2,500 when bought with the appropriate enclosures.

The marmosets are all nine-months-old and will grow to around 12 inches tall. The meerkats - which have become increasingly popular thanks to an internet car insurance comparison website - are 14 months old and are fully grown.

Mr Cook, 42, said: "We will not sell them to anyone who just walks through the door. We will take a long time, including making home visits, before a sale is completed.

"So far we have not sold any of the animals but we could have done so 10 times over, such has been the level of interest.

"The monkeys and meerkats need indoor and outdoor enclosures and require a lot of attention."

Mr Cook said he bought the animals from one of his 'trusted suppliers' and that they did 'a lot of research' before making a decision to put them on sale.

He said: "The monkeys are tame and can be fed by the hand. The meerkats are quiet tame and curious. We have worked to give them the best environment that we can in the shop. Both animals are mischievous and should not be given the run of the house.

"We wanted to offer something different.

"The reaction from shoppers so far has been amazing. The vast majority are chuffed to bits to see them."

Mr Cook said he had been taken aback by the level of some of the criticism.

He said: "There have been threats coming in to the building which are completely out of order and we will be informing the police.

"But I am open to any constructive advice. "

Craig Redmond of Manchester-based The Captive Animals Protection Society, said the charity had already received 'a handful' of complaints about Aquamania.

He said: “It’s fairly unusual for primate to be sold in shops, but if that’s what the pet shop licence allows, as decided by the local authority, it is legal.

“But we certainly wouldn’t encourage shops to sell primates or meerkats in this way. They are such social animals and have specialist needs. It is cruel.

“They are wild animals, regardless of where they are kept, and are hard-wired to behave in certain ways and to live in large groups.

“Meerkats are burrowing animals and if they are kept in the house they will trash your sofa and your carpet."

Mr Redmond said there needed to be tighter controls as people did not need a licence to buy one of the animals, and there was no requirement for follow up checks.

Pendle-based Brian Jackson of the East Lancashire branch of Friends of the Earth, said he 'deplored' the actions of Aquamania.

He said: “These are wild animals and we should protect the habitat they are supposed to be in.

“I think Blackburn with Darwen Council is completely out of touch with the outside world by allowing this.

“A fair better way to have an interest in a wild animal and to directly have an impact on it is to sponsor it through the World Wildlife Fund.”

Peter Dillingham, head keeper at Blackpool Zoo, said he had 'serious worries' about the sale of monkeys and meerkats.

He said: "These animals are not domesticated at all.

"Just because you have seen a meerkat on a commercial and thought it looks cute it doesn't mean having one as a pet is a good idea. They should be left to the experts."

Blackburn with Darwen Council confirmed it has granted a general exotic pets licence to Aquamania.

Coun Dave Harling, executive member for regeneration, said: “No special licence is needed to sell meerkats but documentation is needed for each of the marmoset monkeys showing where they have come from."