ESSAYS by Judy Lumb

The Baby Monkey

In 1992 I wrote of my involvement in the project to reintroduce black howler monkeys into the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (CBWS).  These monkeys, locally called baboons, used to live in the CBWS but they died off in the 1960 due to a combination of hurricane Hattie, logging, hunting and a yellow fever epidemic.  I got involved in the project because I just happened to be visiting the CBWS when the two scientists, Drs. Rob Horwich and Fred Koontz, were getting set up for the first translocation.  We shared kitchen facilities and, while they were out working, I cooked variations on rice and beans.  They actually liked my cooking and invited me back when they  moved the monkeys.

     This May, I went to the CBWS to cook for the monkey translocation project again.  This is the third and last year.  In all, sixty-two monkeys have been translocated; eleven new babies born in the Cockscomb with eight surviving; and three monkeys cannot be found, presumed dead.  That's a very good record.

     And, they are now howling.  The first year there was no howling at all.    It is assumed that the howling is a territorial action.  They must have thought they were in someone else's territory.  When more were brought the second year, there was occasional howling as rare encounters occured.  The first ten days I was here this year, I heard howling three times, but the last three days, I heard it three times a day.  It seems there are now just enough for the space available that they feel the need to communicate.  It is a spectacularly successful project with only one problem.

     In the first group they moved this year, there were two babies.  Two graduate students had been following them for two months and knew they were born April 13 and that one of the two mothers usually had  both babies.  But under the stress of the translocation, she would only take one baby and the other mother would have none.  Dr. Wendy Westrom, project the veterinarian, gave the baby some fluids and drugs and put her back on the mother before they were released.  The baby went out with the troop, but was soon abandoned about halfway up the canopy.  She was sitting there crying.  The troop was not far away, but much higher.

     One of the wardens stayed and watched her and about an hour later, she fell, so he brought her back to the camp to hand raise her so she could then be released back into the wild.

     I didn't see her that night and told Fred that I am not very good with human babies.  He said,

     "But this is a monkey!"

     I didn't know what he meant, but I found out the next day.  The team left to go get more monkeys in Bermudian Landing,so I volunteered to watch her.  Everyone who saw this precious little thing immediately fell in love with her, including me.

     There were some similarities to a human baby, like nighttime feedings, but she was much easier.  She weighed a little over a half a pound, fit into your hand.  She was happiest wrapped around someone's neck, holding on to hair and clothes with all five appendages (counting arms, legs, and tail).  When she had to pee or poop, she started squirming and making little squeaking sounds.  As soon as you held her away from your body, she let go.  I quickly learned to wait to pull her off in a convenient location.  Her mother must have her trained her that way.  The only times she had accidents, pissing on me, were when Wendy gave her a shot and when Wendy held up an injured owl next to her to take a picture.

     This was my first relationship with another primate.  It was much more like a human baby than like a cat or a dog.  She had tiny little perfect human ears.  She didn't have claws, but fingernails, toenails, and knuckles.  She had big round eyes you could drown in and two frosty spots, one above each eyebrow.  Her hair swirled around and came to a cute little point on top of head.

     At first we had to get her diet worked out because she got diarrhea.  Wendy said it was the change from mother's milk to formula.  One night I had her (we traded off night duty), she was just like a colicky baby.  She took only a little formula at a time and then woke up in a half hour hungry again.  She cried and squirmed and I knew her little tummy hurt, but there was nothing I could do.  Wendy returned the next day with the next set of monkeys and some different formula plus baby cereal with banana.  That did the trick and we got her stabilized.

     Then she began to get secure enough to explore a bit.  One day she ventured away from my head about six inches to examine things which were around my bed. The next day she went all the way to the foot of my bed.  But as soon as I stirred, she raced back and grabbed hold of my hair.  When I was doing something, she adjusted herself around my neck and watched intently as I peeled and cut up vegetables or walked in the forest.

     I was reading Darwin's Origin of Species and took pictures of the monkey paging through the book.  I also read Loren Eilsey's The Immense Journey, a collection of anthropological essays.  About human evolution, he says we have given up some instinctual life in favor of a more rational one.  In order to develop a large, rational brain, we have an elongated childhood, becoming much more helpless.

     This was demonstrated clearly to me.  The baby monkey was so much more functional than a human baby.  She was much more like a three-year old, telling you when she needed to go to the bathroom.  She didn't put things in her mouth; she examined them very carefully, turning them slowly over and over with her hands or feet.  She seemed to have a self-identity, and an idea of what life was supposed to like for a howler monkey.  I guess that was because she spent six weeks with her mother.

     But, obviously, she had no capacity for rational thought.  Here was a creature, well-developed as a primate, with all her species' instincts in tact.  It gave me a clearer sense of what it means to be human.

     We found a woman and her daughter, Eulalia and Ophelia Pop, in Maya Center, the village near the park, who will take care of the baby monkey for two months, enough to get her sleeping through the night and weaned from baby formula.  Then they will take her back to the park and  begin to slowly train her to eat food in the wild so they can release her to join a troop.

     I went to Maya Center to show them how to take care of her.  For the first round of all that she does (eats, plays, pees, poops and sleeps) I kept her on me.  Then she woke up again and I put on Ophelia.  I had planned to stay around for a couple of days to observe and give advice.  But when I pulled away, she started screaming for me.  It was clear that nothing would go right as long as I was there, so I said I would take a walk and come back later.

     Wendy had talked about imprinting, but I didn't realize the implications of it until that moment.  It reminded me of one of my sons' favorite childhood books, Are You My Mother?, the story of a duckling that hatched alone and went around asking every creature if they were his mother.

     When I came back, they said the monkey had climbed down to the ground and was sniffing and following my trail.  They had to run after her.  She was running around frantically.  I suggested that they put her in the cage.  Then when they let her out she will be grateful and settle down, at least eventually.  Then I left.  I was told that she settled down and they are doing fine with her.

     After a couple of months I had the opportunity to visit her briefly as I passed through Maya Center.  She was taking a nap in her cage and lazily rolled over to look at me, annoyed to be awakened, but she did not remember me at all.  After two months of Eulalia and Ophelia's loving care, the baby had grown three times as big and seemed very happy. But attempts to reintroduce her to a troop in the wild failed, so four months later we took her to the Belize Zoo, where she still resides.

Judy Lumb, 1994