To be a monkey is not easy. Especially having been raised as a pet in a household or zoo. Brought up by human beings, the monkey loses fear and often also the respect for human beings, as soon as it reaches adolescence. Unfortunately that causes regular troubles in interactions. The initially friendly young monkey turns out to be dominant aggressive and dangerous towards the owner. Nothing else can be done to such a monkey but for keeping it in a cage for the rest of its life, without hope of reintroduction to the wild or putting it down.
In Ecuador it’s still custom and fancy to have a wild animal like a monkey as a pet although it’s prohibited. Authorities therefore started to be more rigorous and confiscate these animals. They bring them to Rescue Centers like AmaZOOnico. There are though only a slight number of animals, which can be reintroduced to the wild on the 17 km2 Wildlife Reserve of Selva Viva (Rainforest). One of the reasons is the above-mentioned disturbed relationship to humans. Additionally there can be problems between the monkey within groups, as they didn’t learn appropriate social behavior as pets, which might cause even killing of other monkeys or related animal species.
Great pleasures are the few monkeys who can be reintroduced to the wild or at least to get to be half-wild, monitored closely by volunteers. There are two humble wooden houses on distinguished strategic places in the Selva Viva Rainforest. We stayed for four consecutive weeks at one of them, Maquisapa Alpa, where six woolly monkeys recently had been released.
To get to Maquisapa Alpa means a sturdy one hours walk from AmaZOOnico over hilly and muddy paths through the rainforest. All food for the monkeys and for the volunteers has to be transported over the river by boat, with a car over a dirt road and the last 15 minutes on the back of a volunteer over a murky, slippery path towards the destination. The last hurdle is a cable bucket cart, where the load has to be launched to get to the other side of the river, if the water of the river is too high to wade through. Either way it’s likely to get stuck with your boots in the sludge, to lose hold at the riverbank, to get soaking wet or covered with mud.
We arrived therefore the first time unharmed and were introduced to the monkeys by Alejo, the veterinary of AmaZOOnico, who had stayed with the monkeys prior to us, to make sure they stood safe for their first steps to freedom. George and I sat next to Alejo on a bench and the monkeys could approach to get comfortable with us. We couldn’t make out the differences between them yet at that stage. Only Puko, the smallest woolly monkey, was unmistakable. Totally fearless did he climb all over us, grabbing hats and what ever he could take to play with. Seeing that also Retro approached and grasped a leg to snivel and nibble at it. His twisted front legs, caused by malnutrition during adolescence, were remarkable signs but didn’t hinder him from moving with agility in the trees. Hence on the floor he made a cloddy but endearing impression.
We had to get used to missing modern achievements such as electricity and warm showers. As fastidious people, who had cooked up to this point with all kind of half-finished products, we now faced the challenge of a pack of flour and dried yeast, which should be transformed somehow in bread without having a scale. Or, what about the lintels and the corn flour without formula? What kind of treatment these ingredients need to get to be eatable?! Luckily lots of fruit and vegetables made the food plan somewhat more diverse, as dairy wasn’t commonly available. The monkeys didn’t mind to share their food with us. Contrariwise, they enjoyed pieces of sugar cane standing next to us with an impression of bliss on their face like the one on our expressions.
Keisha, one of the two female woolly-monkey of the group, was shyer than Puko and Retro and as was Julio too, who preferred to stay even further away watching us from the safety of a tree branch. All these four monkeys liked to follow our movements in our house from their position outside. At anyplace we went, be it in the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom upstairs or the attic they monitored us. As there were no walls and no windows but chicken wire, they could see us, wherever we were. They hang, sit or lay to observe their favorite actors as following a peep show in big brother’s container, enjoying the diversion by making their own monkey-comments. The fact, that they used to pee in that position too – which is normal as monkeys do their thing, where ever they are – made us to reposition spices, cups and pans, which were initially directly in their target point line.
Keisha developed a preference for George as not to say she was in love with him. She followed him all over the place showing him her teeth. That seems to be a sign of aggression or attraction, which we figured had to be attraction in this case. One day George cleaned the path behind the house leading upwards the hill with a panga (traditional long knife, almost like a wide sword). Only Puko had followed him, so he wasn’t aware of Keisha, who approached him quietly from the back. All of a sudden she hugged him around his bare leg. George got a huge fright, not knowing what grabbed him with frightening pictures of gigantic python’s and other predators of the jungle in his mind. Luckily George restrained chop away the unknown danger. It was just Keisha, who had decided to hug her idol and to get as close as she could. I won’t repeat the four-letter words, which were carried far over the tops of the canopies to reach even me down at the other side of the house near the river. What was a big fright initially made us laugh a great deal as we told the story to our friends.
We only saw Pancha, another female woolly-monkey, in the first days that we were at Maquisapa Alpa and mostly in the top of remote trees, barely recognizable by us. Not only the color she had in common with Julio. Also he decided after about two weeks of our stay that he was confident enough to discover territory further away. So we lost also his usual appearance windows, when he was following curiously our every day’s tasks with his black bouncy eyes. We missed Julio but on the other hand we knew, that this was the purpose of our stay. The monkeys should gain confidence and slowly be reintroduced to the wild.
Unfortunately this was not possible with Frederico. He had been repeatedly aggressive to volunteers in the past and so the team of AmaZOOnico had decided to put him back in the cage for good. Selva Viva is not big enough that an aggressive monkey wouldn’t be a threat to people around and in the reserve. As he was a well-proportioned big monkey with a healthy set of teeth, we were quite happy not having to deal with him in the wild. The cage was about 150 meter away from the house. We fed the monkeys twice a day. Frederico in his cage and the others in short distance to it. The cage was enormous and consisted of different compartments. This was necessary to be able to clean the cage and to get the still depending monkeys into it, when we wanted to leave for a short while. The monkeys would follow us all over the place and probably lose directions or get to the busy dirt road. On Sunday evening we were supposed to attend the meeting of the volunteers at AmaZOOnico and Mondays the team meeting with all employees and Remigio, the owner. And, on Wednesdays we had to find a place on top of a hill with cellphone connection to call for food supply for the monkeys and us. That was only possible half way to AmaZOOnico . That’s why we had to make a plan to get the monkeys in the cage by offering them delicious, extraordinary treats like strawberry flavored avena balls (oats mixed with papaya and other ingredients) at least twice a week. On Monday we carried the supplies ourselves to Maquisapa Alpa and on Thursday some of the volunteers brought it before lunch time. We always prepared some fresh bread or other food for them, as they had to walk all the way back to AmaZOOnico after carrying all our supplies.
Sometimes we plaid cards in the evening by candle light or read a book. At other times we got to bed almost with the sun only to get wide awake in the middle of the night listening to the voices of the night. One owl sounded like a women singing sadly along, having potential to create weird pictures in our heads of ghost floating through the night. There was also time to be annoyed, when the ideas, what to fix up, ran out or the material therefore was missing. In the whole picture it was good to have the time to be without any internet and telephone far away from all, what was or could be and just to live the moment. Maybe something we almost lost to be able to. And not to forget the most exciting experiences, when Puko smashed his plate furiously on the floor like an angry kid, when he was trapped in the cage and his little face showed disappointment. Even so his eyes could sparkle naughty, when he tried to prevent us from using the broom. Unforgettable was also the experience, when the riverbank was too slippery with the unavoidable result to be landing right in the river with backpack and all.