Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Looking back

When we began to care for howler monkeys, we allowed them to roam freely in the forest. We provided shelter in the roof of our house and two meals a day, breakfast and dinner. At night, they slept in the roof, leaving after breakfast to spend the morning foraging in the high trees of the forest. Midday they returned for siesta, and then they would race off to the forest again until dinner at four in the afternoon. The size of the group varied anything between eight to fifteen individuals. Some chose to leave the group and make off on their own. Some of these children have found partners and live with their families in the nearby forest to this day. There was some loss because of unexplained sickness. We were never able to identify the sickness in spite of expert autopsy at university clinics in Caracas. We do know that it was not Yellow Fever. The one outstanding fact was that animals in enclosures were not affected. This was a forest born disease born by the wild Howlers. Even though we were not aware of any direct contact with wild tribes, the process of ‘marking out’ could easily explain the spread of the sickness. Howlers have an enzyme in their spittle, which they transfer to their beards. The beard they use as a brush to paint the marking point on the tree. This spittle could easily be the reservoir of the disease.
The monkeys that chose to leave the group are more difficult to explain. Anna, one of our early residents, hated other females and caused at least three to leave and find their own place in the forest. We know where they live and often visit them. We do know that they have likes and dislikes of other howlers. This can be surprising. We were sure that Sussy would love Emma when she arrived. Emma was small and baby like and Sussy has been a mother many times. However, the opposite was true; she attacked Emma viciously, resulting in the partial loss of a finger. On the other hand, MonaLisa loves both Imanol and Rosita. She tries to treat them like her own children.
Now as a young adult, Emma attacked Mañiña and he is in fear of her and tried to leave the other day to get away from her. Is this a case of the abused abusing as with humans?

The dynamics have changed because of our decision to keep all the children in large and friendly enclosures. They can no longer leave at will. But that has not stopped this strange dislike that some of them develop to others. This is the reason why we choose partners carefully and make certain that each monkey lives with others that are friendly. Where possible we pair them as husband and wife.

We are often asked, ‘why are your monkeys in cages, why don’t you release them to the forest where they belong?’ From what I have written above, I think you are beginning to see the reason.

One answer lies in the kind of monkey we have here now. In the early days, the howlers came from the forest, having been confiscated by the National Guard from children selling them at the roadside. These wild untamed monkeys had little or no contact with humans. Giving them free range of the forest was not a problem until we began to identify diseases.

All the present permanent residents are from human homes in Caracas and Valencia. They are semi tame. They have special needs that are not answered by the forest. They look for human company and care.

Animals that have been in human company are able to transfer the diseases that they have acquired from humans to their wild friends.
These diseases can then return to the human race through wild animals sold at the roadside or acquired from wild sources. These are the famous Zoonotic diseases, Frequently the disease has been altered and come back with a new strain that humans have not yet encountered. Think of AIDs, Mad Cow disease, Avian Flue just to mention a few that come to mind. This is our main reason for not returning monkeys to the wild.

I have already mentioned that monkeys in enclosures are safe against forest diseases. This is another good reason for housing them in enclosures. It is now five years since we had any problem with health.
Before coming to Canaote some of our children have been sleeping on sofas, covered lovingly with blankets, eating human diet and are frankly not prepared for life in the wild. We try as best we can to give them the comfort that they are used to, but perhaps with a slightly more suitable diet than sardines and spaghetti

When MonaLisa arrived here a few years ago, she had never seen the sky, never felt wind and rain on her face. Never seen let alone climbed a tree and never seen another animal and does not know how to make a baby. She had been living in an apartment in Valencia. Yes, she was loved and well cared for but where was her life? To this day she will only tempt the very low branches of trees. In spite of many opportunities to go with an attractive howler male, she does not identify with them and tries desperately to make love to human males. It is heart breaking to see this.
We try to teach her monkey ways but it is an uphill struggle.

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