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Spider monkeys Chiquito and Lolita were orphaned when their mothers were hunted and killed for bush meat. Chiquito was four or five days old, hairless, and fit in the palm of his surrogate human mother’s hand. No one is sure how old Lolita was when her mother was killed. Fortunately, compassionate Costa Ricans adopted both infants.
A childless campesino couple in Siquirres raised Chiquito like a human baby. He ate what they ate, drank from a sippy cup, and slept in their bed. He even used the toilet and flushed. The problem is that monkeys live by monkey rules, not human rules…and Chiquito started to bite when things didn’t go the way he expected them to. He was moved into a cage on the side of their house at around eighteen months of age, and MINAET transferred guardianship to us four months later.
Lolita was adopted by a campesino family who lived a kilometer from Chiquito’s human family. They bottle-fed her 2% milk, which was a significant expense for them, but she couldn’t digest it properly because spider monkeys are frugivores (fruit eaters) and need a vegan diet. Lolita was noticeably malnourished when we got her, but after 24 hours on a soy infant formula her poop went from slimy white semi-solid chunks to healthy mini tootsie-rolls. She’s been gaining weight, filling out, and growing a thick fur coat ever since.
We’ve had both spider monkeys since January. Chiquito is twenty-six months old now, and Lolita is about nine months old. Spider monkeys mature very slowly, and they’re considered infants from birth until 2 years of age, or weaning. They continue to travel and sleep with their mothers (and a new sibling) until they reach sexual maturity at four to five years of age. Chiquito is a juvenile now, but Lolita is still an infant and wakes us up at least twice during the night for a bottle. In addition, someone she knows must always be visible…which is how she would live in the wild…or she gives the “lost monkey” cry of distress until we appear. Fortunately she’s darling, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be, so I wheel her playpen around the house when she’s not clinging to my ankle.
Chiquito is more of a handful, but has adjusted well. He’s in a cage attached to the house, where Lolita will eventually join him, but can also see one of us at all times during daylight hours. He plays by the monkey rules, and we (try to) follow them. He panicked and bit me – it didn’t draw blood, but left a multi-colored bruise – when I walked past a loud gasoline-powered pressure washer with him, but moments later he was sitting on my lap eating peanuts on the half shell. No harm, no foul.
Both monkeys rely on us for food and protection, and consequently, escape is the farthest thing from their minds. We’re able to take them down to the river, or into the jungle, and let them be monkeys. Lolita is still too young to feel safe venturing off me (even if she’s just holding on by a tail), but Chiquito plays in the trees like a wild monkey. When Paul and I head back toward “civilization” he looks visibly disappointed, but climbs into Paul’s arms to have the leash snapped back on. And were it not for Chiquito’s propensity to break “into” the house, we wouldn’t even need a collar and leash for control.
There are no “how to” manuals for rehabilitating and releasing spider monkeys. I volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Washington State, but working with primates contradicts most of what I learned working with North American wildlife. Allowing raccoons, or bears, or deer to become habituated to humans creates animals that are a nuisance, or dangerous, or target practice…so they’re rehabilitated with minimal human contact. Rehabilitating orphaned primates without surrogate parents would create psychotic animals that could never be released or raise offspring of their own. And wildlife rehabilitation is only successful if it produces functional members of a wild population that reproduce.
By an amazing stroke of luck, the International Primatological Society is having a five day conference in Cancun, Mexico this August. It’s held every two years; in 2010 it was in Japan, and in 2014 it will be in Vietnam. But this August it’s in Mexico and will devote significant time to Central and South American primates! There will be numerous sessions focusing on spider monkeys, as well as a presentation on a successful spider monkey reintroduction program. So I’m registered for the conference and, as a bonus, scheduled to visit a spider monkey sanctuary about 50 kilometers away in Playa del Carmen. Fortunately, Paul has agreed to stay home and monkey sit…
Michele and Paul Gawenka moved to San Ramon, Alajuela, Costa Rica in August of 2011. They opened a wildlife rehabilitation center, licensed by the Costa Rican government through MINAET, in January of 2012. To read The Monkey Rules, follow the Monkey Diaries blog, and learn interesting spider monkey trivia, visit their website at www.spidermonkeyrehab.com.
Graciously contributed to The Costa Rica Star by Michele Gawenka