When Emma, one of the keepers, at Wild Futures monkey sanctuary, told me that I could communicate with the capuchins, I thought she was taking the piss.
To say “Hello!” you put your hand on your shoulder, slap on a wide grin and rock side-to-side. She encouraged us, 3 new volunteers, to copy her. I was skeptical. I was also very grumpy because my cat had died the day before and the cute monkey noises sounded like a cat crying.
So I looked at the monkeys behind Emma, pretending to be lost in thought. Two capuchins caught my eye. The smaller one was peeking at us from behind the one with a round belly named Kodak, with his tongue hanging out. When he saw me watching him he scampered away and I noticed he ran awkwardly. I decided he was my favorite and asked about him. His name was Joey and his story broke my heart.
Joey came to the monkey sanctuary in 2007, three years before me. Someone took him from the rainforest as an infant, undoubtedly killing his mother and likely a few other family members to do so. He was brought to London, England, legally. He was then placed in a cage about the size of a wardrobe and there he lived for 9 years, often with only a TV for company whilst his owner went away on business.
She eventually left the country, abandoning Joey. He arrived at the sanctuary when the neighbor who had been feeding him called. The vet and keepers at the sanctuary were unsure what to do with Joey. Thanks to his bad diet and lack of sunshine derived vitamin D, he’d grown a bit wonky and was now disabled.
As well as physically disabled, he was traumatized. They told me when he arrived he rocked back and forth for days, screaming and holding onto a blanket, too scared to go outside. They considered whether the humane thing would be to put him down. But then one day, Macer, another keeper, went to go check on him and Joey tried to attack him. He said it was the best feeling, as he knew it meant he still had some spirit left in him.
When I last went in 2011, the sanctuary was home for: 5 woolly monkeys, 3 Barbary macaques, 1 patas monkey and 19 capuchins. All but the woollys were direct victims from the pet or circus trade. I had some time to kill in my long university summer breaks and I had signed up for a month to help with the daily maintenance of the place, or as one of my professors disdainfully put it, clean up monkey sh*t.
About two weeks in, whilst I was collecting the many colors of capuchin poo (red, green, purple, orange, yellow and of course brown), Mickey came toward me. She was twitching her eyebrows, something I’d been told means "What's up?" in capuchin speak.
I checked to see if anyone was looking, then tentatively did what Emma had demonstrated. Mickey responded with a blank look so I did it more enthusiastically, and this time she responded with gusto. Soon my mornings were made brighter by 3 or 4 capuchins coming to say “Hello” while I cleaned.
Not all the monkeys were quite so inquisitive, though. Nelly would react badly if unfamiliar women came near her, especially if they were ginger, biting her fingers with anxiety. Some would hide away and others would try and snatch at you if you came too close, a stark reminder that they were still wild, and strong and fast enough to do serious damage if you were careless. The Barbarys were fine as long as you didn’t make any noise, and if you wore flip-flops that was a bonus, because Chico loved to stare at toes.
Keeping primates as pets in the UK is totally legal, and Wild Futures estimates there are around 5,000. People think their pet monkey loves them like their dog does because they interpret their behavior how they want to see it. I’ve seen families at zoos allowing their child to bang on the glass, taking photos of the "smiling" ape who is actually doing a fear grimace. And I’ve seen that viral video of a slow loris being "tickled" when it's actually raising its arms because it feels threatened.
Sometimes pets have their teeth removed or filed down, sometimes monkeys are drugged to make them sluggish and safe for tourists to have their photos with. Many pets get sick and die from a bad diet and survivors are often abandoned when they grow up and start establishing dominance behavior. Think back to the cute pet monkey videos: How many are old?
When I first started at Wild Futures, I felt my inner scientist twist when they talked about the monkeys' personalities. I don’t like anthropomorphization and I thought the keepers put unnecessary emphasis on treating the animals so individualistically. But with time I saw it their way.
I learnt more about primate behavior in that month than I had so far in my degree. I learnt how complex the needs of the monkeys were, how easily they got bored despite rotating enclosures daily and having fresh enrichment in the form of toys and puzzles. I saw how complex their social hierarchies were, making introducing new monkeys into groups an arduous task. And how different the species' needs were. All these factors make them terrible pets.
I was heartbroken to leave the sanctuary after a month. I had fallen in love with the ethos of the sanctuary and I felt like my stay had opened my eyes, even though I was already against primate captivity. I guess its one thing to read about abuse and another to see it.
I returned there a year later for another month of poop cleaning labor and sought out Joey. He wasn’t "better" -- he will always be disabled, he will always need ramps to make his enclosures Joey-friendly and someone to crack his nuts open for him. But I saw him playing, running and jumping with less fear than before. And when I walked slowly up to the cage, he didn’t scamper away. He ran straight up to me and did some eyebrow wiggles followed by a very tentative wobbly attempt at the hello signal. His confidence improvement in a year was noticeable and a true testament to the work that Wild Futures do.
But to get to the heart of what Wild Futures is about, I ask you, please, the next time you see a monkey on TV, or on YouTube, turn it off. Don’t give it the time of day. Tell the people who share said videos with you why the interactions they viewed are not what they seem. And if you go abroad, don’t pay to have your photo taken with captive primates. Think of where that monkey comes from and the conditions it’s being kept in.
Few people are deliberately cruel to primates, but only by opening our eyes and respecting how monkeys (and other animals) should live can we understand what cruelty really is.