Animal Rehabilitation Centers
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Costa Rica’s four species of monkeys are under threat by more than just wild predators.
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Two monkeys stared at the group from behind the bars of the enclosure. One, a baby spider monkey named Maggie, jumped and swung around the cage, her long limbs and tail moving rapidly from branches to cage walls. Her brown and black fur grew in little tufts all over her body, and she seemed to smile as she played games of her own creation.
Maggie wasn’t always this happy, though. Before she came to Proyecto Asis, Maggie lived with a human family inside a house.
“We’ve gotten a baby with a collar, with a leash, but that was the first time we got a baby with a diaper,” tour guide Carlos Barrantes said. “Si guys, she came with a diaper. And the tail inside in a diaper.”
Though seeing an animal in a cage may look sad to some, Barrantes said this is a much better life for these animals than living on a leash in a house.
“Now she’s in a cage, but she feels free because she can jump, she can play, because she can use her tail, because she has a good diet.”
"Now she’s in a cage, but she feels free because she can jump, she can play, because she can use her tail, because she has a good diet."
The other monkey, a baby howler, sat in the front of the enclosure, curled up with a teddy bear on a tree branch. Unnamed as of yet, the fuzzy black creature was on his mother’s back when the branch they were on collapsed beneath them. Though the baby survived the fall, his mother died. Now, he clings to his teddy bear, missing his mom.
“I would like to call him Teddy,” Barrantes said, gazing fondly at the howler.
Proyecto Asis is a wildlife protection and conservation organization. Workers rescue and rehabilitate wild animals, from monkeys to birds and wild cats. Often, the organization receives animals that have been kept illegally as pets in human households.
Usually, howler monkeys come to Proyecto Asis after experiencing a tragedy, like being hit by a car or running into a telephone wire. When an adult howler has an injury, workers are usually able to send them back into the wild after a few weeks.
The unnamed baby howler, however, will never be able to be released into the wild because he didn’t have the time to learn necessary survival skills from his mother.
Female monkeys carry their babies on their backs when they are first born. Barrantes said “monkey see, monkey do,” is very real. Without that relationship, babies wouldn’t know how to move through the trees or what to eat. Barrantes said people who want to keep baby monkeys as pets will shoot and kill their mothers to steal the babies. When they get sick of keeping the monkeys leashed in the house, he said, they bring them to a place like Proyecto Asis.
Releasing a monkey back into the wild is a complicated process. Adriana Borbón, volunteer program coordinator for Proyecto Asis, said the group has to find a place where they are far enough from people that they won’t seek them out, and far enough from predators that they won’t be hunted immediately.
Victor Solis, biologist for Proyecto Asis, said it’s difficult to release some monkeys back into the wild.
“These animals have two different behaviors: aggressive with humans or friendly with humans,” Solis said.
When they get used to people, the monkeys seek them out because they believe that humans mean food is close by.
Costa Rica has four different species of monkeys: spider monkeys, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys and squirrel monkeys. Baby white-faced capuchin monkeys are often brought to the organization because people find them in the forests. This, Barrantes said, disrupts nature.
“It happens all the time in nature, guys,” he said. “You feel bad for the babies. No. Nature doesn’t need you to feel sad for them. If you find a baby animal, leave it alone.”
These monkeys live in groups of about 20, with one male and 19 females. When a female gives birth to a baby boy, the alpha male of the group views it as competition. They abandon the baby. Though 95 percent of these baby boys die, 5 percent follow along behind the group and learn how to survive. When they are older, they take over the group and banish their fathers. Barrantes said this is an important part of the circle of life.
Barrantes gestured toward a young monkey with a face cut deep with wrinkles giving him a permanent scowl.
“I am 100 percent sure that he is one of the 5 percent,” he said sadly. “Look where he is now.”
Borbón said that a huge part of the mission of Proyecto Asis is to educate people on protecting wildlife.
“Trafficking wild animals is one of the most lucrative black markets at this moment, so we want to raise awareness about that,” she said. “We want to tell people that the moment that you order a spider monkey online, probably there’s a mother that has been killed by a smuggler just to take that baby away.”
The monkeys at Proyecto Asis are much happier than they would were in people’s houses, Barrantes said, but not happier than they would have been had people not brought them into their houses in the first place.