Most of my time at the Jaguar Rescue Centre was spent looking after, napping with, attempting to discipline, comforting and playing with monkeys.
Each day at the rescue centre the monkeys are taken to the forest in two different groups. The adults, teenagers and one or two of the smallest babies are taken to the forest to one side of the sanctuary around eight thirty in the morning. In the afternoon, the “kids” go to the other side of the sanctuary where there is a small clearing with some great twisted climbing trees, creepers and a swing made of vines.
The adults have all day to interact with wild monkeys and live in the forest. If they wish to remain in the forest at the end of the day nothing stops them. After all, this is their training for release and if they decide to release themselves….well great! In practice, however, they know when it’s time to go home.
The youngsters spend less time in the forest. They simply play and sleep on and around you, learning and climbing so long as they have your reassurance.
Note: the first time a monkey climbs onto you, you sometimes feel it has just peed down your neck. Their body temperature is a couple of degrees higher than ours and that difference can feel like the proverbial warm trickle. Telling the difference is further complicated by the fact that they actually do pee on you quite often.
Advanced Monkey School
First thing each morning, a procession of four or five sleepy volunteers gathers the monkeys on their persons and stroll a few hundred yards towards the forest along a muddy path, where they release their charges into the trees. En route, the howler monkeys mostly like to travel on your shoulders, with their tail wrapped around your neck or arm. Some, however, like to dangle from your arm by their tail and hold onto your legs. The babies cling adorably to your ankles. Neria, a spider monkey, tends to wrap herself around your midriff, enveloping you in a huge bear (monkey?) hug. The male volunteers take the girl monkeys and the female volunteers take the boy monkeys to avoid alpha monkey shenanigans (see Alison’s post). As you carry them to the forest, you keep a firm grip on each monkey’s tail to prevent escape; although they know better than you where they’re going and are generally keen to get there.
Once the monkeys are dispatched into the trees, one or two volunteers stay with them all day, equipped with a blanket, wet wipes, bananas and water for those monkey emergencies. The morning shift can be a long haul (almost 5 hours) since most of the monkeys disappear up high to play and interact with local wild howler monkey troops. Chipito, the alpha male howler, at times teams up with a wild alpha male and the troop follows his lead. Relaxing under the edge of the canopy, the morning turns slowly into afternoon; it’s a good way to get to know another volunteer/traveller or, if alone, to read a book.
On the ground around your blanket, poison dart frogs conduct their courtship on rotting logs, bullet ants prowl and all manner of bugs scurry about busily. Overhead, Toucans wheel and call, vultures assemble on the forest fringe and black hawks occasionally flit in amongst the trees. In the field on the forest edge, horses mosey and two tethered oxen graze. Sometimes the ranch owner trains the horses using rope and a post to make them circle this way and that. Overhead you hear the occasional monkey call, crack of a branch, dropping fruit or rustling of leaves as the troop eats and sleeps. Keeping a weather eye on the goings on above is a must, or else you may fail to evade a stream of pee or poop.
The forest looms immediate and dense. Huge trees, festooned with creepers as thick as your leg. Strangler figs climb and kill other trees. Under the canopy, the darkened ground is thick with leaf litter and rotting wood. There are insects everywhere and snakes resting in unseen places…well, probably. You don’t go in there to find out.
Chet, one of the younger howlers, often spends the whole time with the attendant volunteer, alert to everything: Chet is clearly threatened by the wild alpha male and will only join the troop when he’s not around. He self reassures with a soft hoot and clinging hands. Neria the spider monkey pops down two or three times for a cuddle. Climbing into your t-shirt from the neck opening, she envelopes you in a spider monkey hug. She then snoozes for thirty minutes. Her breathing sits on the border between heavy and snoring. Sometimes she’s joined by a howler in your t-shirt, so there you sit like a heavily pregnant lady with a bump made of monkeys. Uncomfortable but amazing!
When it rains – that torrential tropical rain that soaks you instantaneously – you have to flee to the nearby horse shelter, soon followed by some of the monkeys. With no tree to distract them, they try to steal bananas, play and fight amongst themselves and sometimes start wandering off across the field. When they fight it’s generally three of them distributed around your person, so you become the playground as well as the playground monitor trying to calm them without being attacked yourself.
When excited they pee or poop indiscriminately down your back, front, anywhere really.
When they get bored the troop can move and split, wandering off to find other trees: which way do you go, how do you keep them all together? You find yourself running around a field chasing monkeys and grabbing them by the tail, swinging them off the ground to capture them (it doesn’t hurt them, their tails are strong like a third arm) whilst avoiding the thrashing and attempts to bite.
When scared by a dog they flee into corners of the shelter, scared, panting and impossible to coax down until the danger is passed and they return for your reassurance… covered in shit.
When they see a person they know better than you, they will follow that person. So newer volunteers find it harder to keep them together when time-served volunteers help carry them out to the forest. They start to follow the better-known person home, so all manner of bribery needs to be deployed to keep them where they’re meant to be.
Oh and did I mention the mosquitoes?
Once the morning shift is over, (blessed) relief turns up in the form of a new volunteer or two to take over for the shorter afternoon stretch. Forest time ends around three o’clock, at which time another procession of volunteers appears. Spotting the parade, the monkeys slowly descend and gather on the volunteers to be taken home for afternoon tea. Some coaxing may be required, but generally they’re ready for home.
Junior Monkey School
The juniors: four in number and a tumbling, playful, affectionate, beautiful, mischievous and needy bunch. I would challenge anybody not to be moved by them.
Capuchins jump. A lot. At least Julia does. She is a ball of constant activity, always flying onto or off your head, shoulders, arm, leg unannounced from some direction. Prone to nipping with her little vampire teeth she could rightly be called a “user”. She uses you as a perch, as a backboard, as a food and water dispenser, as a swing, etc.
Companion to Tonino the howler, she worries when he’s not around, emitting plaintive little cries. Her bitey bravado soon disappears when nervous.
But to soothe her, all you need to do is groom her. She likes to groom others too, but the howlers – who aren’t a grooming species – typically reject her advances.
Tonino and Maki – Howler Monkeys
Howlers walk and crawl. They are slower-paced than the others overall, due to a diet of leaves and a slower metabolism. They aren’t as much into playing. Instead, they prefer to sleep in the sun, stretched out along a branch. When they need you for warmth or reassurance, they slowly, gently climb up your leg arm-over-arm, reaching for your arm to hoist themselves onto your shoulder. Their warm tail wraps around you. The tail has a pad like a human finger or palm complete with it’s own fingerprint. Holding a monkey tail is like holding a hand.
Tonino seems a bit braver but sometimes decides to wander home to the centre, where he knows he can spend the afternoon playing with Picio (the human manager). He is starting to try out the guttural howler call but hasn’t quite got it yet. Despite appearing a bit grumpy, he is a firm favourite of most of the staff.
Maki likes to sleep on you; she is gentler and somehow slightly more poised and confident.
Spider monkeys swing here there and everywhere, using their super-long arms and tail.
Shaki is the best….a one-eyed bundle of joy that falls in love with male volunteers and staff. Really, he just wants to play. If you pucker up your lips, furrow your brows and make kissing noises at him, he responds in kind before demonstrating his prowess: backwards ballerina spins, swinging, jumping and running coyly up to give you a big hug and make chirping kissy noises in your ear. Then he’s off wanting to be chased. Such a flirt you’ve never met!
He spends all afternoon playing and flirting, although sometimes he takes a little fright and will wrap himself around your ankle or waist. His sight has largely compensated for the lack of an eye (taken out by a stone when his mother was killed by stones being thrown at her), but every so often misses his target.
An afternoon with the youngsters is a tonic to any ill and over all to soon. On our last afternoon at the rescue centre, we engineered the chance for Alison and I to share this duty and it was the perfect way to leave. Fun and joyous interactions without the rawer edge of adult monkey politics; simple play and affection in a beautiful sunlit clearing.
Given time, the monkeys come to know and trust you, and the level of interaction and confidence they have in you increases. The longer you volunteer the more you get out of it. Two weeks was enough to start getting to that level, but we could have easily stayed a month or two … and many people do.
For all the poop, mayhem and rain, those thirty to forty hours I spent in the forest were worth every single minute. To interact at such close level with such beautiful and fascinating creatures in a natural environment is a rarity and privilege that is hard to top.