When you Google Granada, many of the same adjectives are repeated: quaint, colonial, charming.
Given that my Google search was primarily to identify where I’d spend a week learning Spanish, all these adjectives added up—in my imagination, at least—to a restful but productive week of language-acquisition.
Google didn’t say anything about monkeys.
And that was good! Having spent a large chunk of my twenties working with primates in a variety of settings—from a zoo in Hawaii to a great ape rescue center in equatorial Africa—I always kept these beautiful animals very close to my heart. But it’d been years since I actively sought to work with them. However, as those of us who are smitten with travel know, serendipity often has a way of reshaping even the most concrete of plans. And my plans are never too concrete anyway.
I spent my second night in Granada at a cafe near the park. Another traveler sitting next to me struck up a conversation and asked, “Did you hear about the monkey at the chocolate museum?”
I hadn’t. But once I heard those words, I knew that everything I thought I was going to do on my trip was about to change and NOTHING was going to go as I had planned.
The next day I found myself staring at a baby white-faced capuchin monkey in a cage at the chocolate museum. I learned the monkey’s name was Lolo. He was purchased on the side of the Inter-American highway, where he had been tied up and was hanging by a rope.
I am presuming that like most other primates in this predicament, Lolo’s mother was killed. That may sound shocking, but imagine, for a moment, that someone wanted to take your child from you. Is it incorrect to presume that you would do anything to prevent this from happening?
We are, after all, primates, just like monkeys and apes. Primates are renowned for their exceptional parenting skills, especially mothers. This is why you must kill a mother monkey to take her baby.
Lolo’s adoptive owner and I spoke at length that afternoon. I found him to be receptive to hearing about how to improve Lolo’s quality of life. We also talked about how purchasing a monkey actually encourages the illegal primate trade, which continues to flourish. I explained that I was not just a sentimental animal lover (though I am that, too), but I also happened to have experience with this precise situation in Africa and other places. I explained that Lolo should still be nursing, and perhaps more importantly, that he should be socialized with other capuchins.
There is probably nothing worse for the psychological health of an ape or monkey than to be “humanized.” Behaviorally, monkeys are very similar to humans. They learn by observation and practice— that is to say, their behavior is highly contingent on their environment. If you want to see a monkey with a rich spectrum of vocalizations, who is happily foraging, grooming other monkeys and generally acting monkey-like, then go to a forest. If you want to see a neurotic, angry, alienated and psychologically unnerved monkey, then go see one that has been kept by humans.
You may be wondering why this happens; after all, non-human primates are some of the most intelligent beings of the animal kingdom. So why can’t we train them to live with us?
In my opinion, it is precisely because they are so intelligent and emotionally complex that this doesn’t work. For most primates, knowing you belong to a group is paramount to psychological health. You have your mom. You have your friends and your aunties and uncles.
Monkeys can cohabitate for a while with humans, but truth be told, they are still monkeys. What happens when a monkey is not so small and cuddly and cute? What happens when they have inch long canines and they want to get into cabinets and the icebox and the pots and pans and household cleaners ALL DAY LONG? Biting may work as a “solution” in a group of monkeys. But for a monkey who lives with humans and continues head-butting with his human family, this usually means being locked into a small cage where all those “fun” variables like pots and pans are not within your grasp.
And being locked up means you are alone.
Fortunately for Lolo, he has not reached this stage…yet. Lolo has only been away from his mother and the forest for a month, at the most. And he is still very young, which means he is still very impressionable. The sooner he left the chocolate museum and its unending stream of visitors who wanted to touch him, take pictures and feed him, the better.
And so two weeks ago, I accompanied Lolo to visit the Nicaragua National Zoo Wildlife Rescue Center, the only rescue center in the country. The rescue center is run by Marina Sacasa, who has managed both the rescue center and zoo since 1998. In that time, she has overseen the reintroduction of more than 2,000 animals back into their natural habitat.
This is a massive undertaking. The release site must be protected. It must not be too close to human habitation. It must have enough flora and fauna to sustain an introduced population of animals. And so on.
Ms. Sacasa is a kind-hearted warrior. I am always impressed with women like her. She is honest about the enormity of her project—the zoo and rescue center together house some 1,000 animals at any given time. She is also honest about how much the zoo and rescue center could be improved. She thinks about this every day. She walks around the grounds and all she sees is how it could be better for the animals.
She is invested in a way that most of us will never know. If she walks away, most likely there will be no one else willing to step up to this challenge. It is a life-consuming responsibility.
Both the zoo and the rescue center are managed by the non-profit group FAZOONIC, which is terribly underfunded. The rescue center receives every single animal left at its door—not only capuchins and spider monkeys, but parrots, macaws, toucans and parakeets; raccoons, squirrels, and opossums; ocelots and pumas; and a whole host of animals native to Nicaragua I could not even identify.
While it is wonderful that the center takes in these animals, the conditions there could stand enormous improvements.
When I first arrived there with Lolo, my initial impression was a sense of madness—so much so, that I wanted to turn and walk back out. Every cage is being used, which means that some animal residents have very small quarters. But the facility has nowhere else to put them. And, more importantly, I didn’t turn and walk back out because the rescue center has something I could never give Lolo: a social group of other monkeys.
Animals arrive at the rescue center in all states of psychological health, but there is one pretty consistent gauge to determining a primate’s mental health: typically, the more time monkeys have spent with humans, the greater their neuroses. Tail-biting. Self-mutilation. Rocking back and forth. Pulling out their own hair. This may help you to understand where the sense of madness came from.
Not all the animals are so disturbed. But for those who arrive in this state, it would greatly help to have large enough enclosures to do the things that monkeys do: climbing, foraging, and nesting, to name a few activities.
In time, most of the residents of the rescue center will be released to a suitable site, and this will, in turn, make room for more creatures; it’s all part of the unending stream of animals the rescue center receives.
For Lolo’s sake, and for the sake of his monkey friends, I have organized a fundraising campaign to build a large enclosure for the white-faced capuchins. The spider monkeys have one, but there are no funds for a similar enclosure for the capuchins.
When I first took Lolo to the rescue center, I immediately judged it on what it lacked, and almost turned and walked out. I am so glad I did not. What I decided to do instead was to suspend my judgment and do whatever I can to help.
Please consider joining me in this mission. Contact me at [email protected]