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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Monkey Business

"Monkeys are superior to men in this: when a monkey looks into a mirror, he sees a monkey"
~Malcolm de Chazal

When talking to visitors on zoo grounds, a question that frequently pops up is, "What's your favorite animal?" I usually try to brush the question off with a joke, "Oh, we're not allowed to have favorites, it makes all of the other animals jealous"  The fact of the matter is... I don't know.  It's not just that I don't have a favorite individual animal in the zoo (though I do keep a short-list).  It's that I don't have a favorite animal.  At all.

Over the years, I've gone through phases.  I loved reptiles in high school (this was when Steve Irwin was in his prime and catching crocs and wrangling snakes seemed like the coolest thing imaginable).  Hoofstock caught my eye for a while, but I spent most of my college years head-over-heels with carnivores.  Reptiles have made a bit of a comeback these days, though I also confess to being something of a bird-nerd.  

There are some animals that I've never gotten too into, however.  Elephants are cool, as are dolphins, but I never felt any special draw towards either of them.  Despite my newfound appreciation for birds, I'm always leery about parrots.  And my feelings about parrots are nothing compared to how I feel about monkeys.

The visitors, now they love monkeys.  They're easily some of the most popular animals at our zoo.  I get asked all the time if we go in and play with them, and gosh they must be so much fun to work with!  What would it be like to have one as a pet... oh my God, and you could dress it up, too (*shudder*)!

I never like to speak ill of any animal in front of a visitor, but I feel it's in everyone's best interests if I disabuse them of a few notions now and then.  Here's one that I feel I end up repeating a lot: there is probably no worse pet on earth than a monkey.  If someone gave me that choice of having to have a pet rattlesnake or a pet spider monkey, I'd take the rattlesnake, hands down.  Not that I'm saying venomous snakes are an ideal pet - they are not.  It's just that this seems to be a lot more intuitive to many people than a monkey would be.

The things that we love about monkeys - their intelligence, their agility, their playfulness - all conspire to make them terrible pets.  They are very inquisitive, and they can - and will - get into anything.  They are equally adept at getting out of anything, and few things are more stressful than trying to capture an escaped primate zipping through the trees.  They're very human-like... which means that disease transmission is a bigger risk from monkeys than it is from many other mammals (and this cuts both ways, too, which is why we ask very nicely that visitors do not feed the animals).  Another aspect of the human-like nature is a sometimes casual cruelty - people can say what they want to about cats, but I've seen squirrel monkeys and tamarins eagerly catch a songbird that flew into the enclosure and gleefully pull limbs off while the bird is still alive.  Cats at least eat their kills...  Monkeys are surprisingly strong, which is especially unpleasant when you consider that they can be very aggressive.  Perhaps it's the family resemblance, but captive monkeys seem to have much less instinctive fear of humans than other mammals do.  A medium-sized carnivore will give you some space when you enter its enclosure.  A monkey will be up in your face so fast that you'll smell it's breath.

Oh, and speaking of "smell"...

Monkeys are, to varying degrees, treetop dwellers.  They live in a world where, if you poop, it drops a hundred feet down to the forest floor where they never have to see it, smell it, or think about it again.  They typically don't go for toilet training or litter boxes.  Works fine in the jungle, less so in your home.  

Keeping a pet monkey isn't just a bad idea for you... it's bad for the monkey.  Monkeys are intelligent, social creatures.  Being in a house, waiting for you to come home and play with it isn't the life they were meant for.  Most people who keep monkeys keep one, which means that the animal stops being monkeys and starts being a neurotic little pseudo-person.  I cared for one such monkey back in my sanctuary days after it was surrendered by an overwhelmed owner.  That little capuchin had so many problems that, if he'd have been a person, he'd have had his own reality TV show in no time. Which reminds me, monkeys are much more long-lived than a dog or cat, so they'll need care for years and years.  And an unwanted monkey is not an easy animal to find a suitable home for when you decide that you're tired of it.

Most of the people I've talked to are easily convinced that a monkey isn't for them after all; I'm sure most of them were hardly serious about wanting one in the first place.  I'd say 99/100 of the remainder may still want one but will never actually take any steps towards getting one.  Folks I've talked to who do have a monkey are convinced that they've done the right thing, that their "child" is happier with them as part of a family than it would be in a zoo.  The zoo's monkeys don't have the fancy toys or clothes that their monkeys do, and by my own admission I never go in for kisses and cuddles.  

That's true... because I don't need to.  Our monkeys need me to provide food, water, shelter, medical care, and enrichment.  For companionship and affection, they rely on each other - the rest of their troop.  That's because they are monkeys, not little hairy people.  And they know it.  And I feel like it's my job to make sure that all of our visitors understand that point as well.

I wouldn't really say that I dislike monkeys... I just have a much more realistic view of them than many people do (easily understood when you consider the popular image of monkeys portrayed in the media as lovable pets).  There are plenty of keepers out there who are completely devoted to their primates and would never dream of working with a different group of animals.  And even I, despite an inherent bias, have come across a monkey or two over my years who might earn a spot on the short-list of my favorites...

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