A rare breed of primatologist

I’m becoming familiar with being a rare-breed of primatologist: I am primarily interest in captive welfare.

As much as I understand and advocate the important work of conservationist, I struggle to accept the bigger picture. Some monkeys and apes cannot be returned to the wild, are genetically unknown, have no breeding value, and are psychologically compromised, yet all of these issues affecting their conservation value are ‘our’ fault. Human-primates are responsible for extracting wild specimens for all kinds of animal trade resulting in damaged individuals. I strongly propose it be our responsibility to ensure the welfare of each and every primate taken from the wild to live their lives in unnatural captive environments- that is, if they cannot contribute to species propagation then we must meet their needs within captivity regardless.

As such, for the past year I have been working closely with  Ecoparque el Fenix, a non-profit monkey sanctuary in Mexico. Upon visiting the sanctuary in 2013, I ended up cancelling all other plans and remaining on-site for 1.5 months to conduct a behavioural study (the results of which I am presenting at the Primate Society of Great Britain’s 2014 spring meeting, and I aim to publish in the coming year after completion of my final MSc thesis). In the short of it, I found that regardless of the overwhelming quantity and duration of stereotypic behaviour present amongst the population, the frequency of expression was variable enough to present me a commonly cited problem: there was no significant relationship between stereotypic behaviour and independent variables (age, sex, rearing history or current housing types).

As a non-profit organisation there were many problems- although the park was fitted with two large enclosures for group living, lack of funds had resulted in the first of two large enclosures falling into disrepair, and so no monkeys could be housed there. The solution was several monkeys tied to trees, several in small enclosures with limited social access and three left free-ranging within the parks boundaries. There was significant lack of shelter, and in witness to the monsoon season I felt this was a serious compromise to welfare. Nutrition was limited with the park reliant on public donations of fruit and a delivery of bananas, which despite popular belief are a very poor domestic fruit species for primate consumption. I desperately needed to prioritise these issues by evaluating the effects of such variables on behaviours other than stereotypies- and I used locomotion.

Locomotion was a robust behaviour and found to be significantly related to ages, rearing history and enclosure type- most importantly it demonstrated extremely clearly that both single housing and tree tethering did not promote species-typical locomotion and were thus not providing adequate captive welfare. So to cut a long story short- I needed social living, I needed large enclosures. Thus my entire project now entails the establishment of a rehabilitation program for these wild born, pet raised spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) resultant from the illegal primate pet trade. I have since designed enclosures (including repairs and improvements to the first large enclosure), which are due to start construction at the end of this month. I have also prepared plans for translocation and social integration of tethered and single-housed individuals by planning to establish a second social group. I feel extremely lucky as this project has received much needed support both by people donating money for the enclosure materials, and by volunteering their time to repair, build and collect behavioural data on each monkey to monitor behavioural progress at all stages at individual level.

My academic supervisor at first thought I was mad, and all my family and friends think I am taking on too much. Since informing my supervisor that I now wish to conduct not one but three studies whilst re-building the sanctuary, her response was: ” just go for it”, which although I have chosen to see this as her faith in me, I am well aware she has most likely given up trying to dissuade me from what’s likely to be the most stressful time of my career. Yet I know this project will succeed, it has to. Having at first thought I was a rare breed of primatologist, I have discovered the individual welfare of neglected primates reaches a broad audience and I have had the pleasure to educate people I know and the public, as to the importance of welfare for those monkeys of low-conservation value. It is my hope that some day the sanctuary may be equipped well enough to provide a rehabilitation centre for those suited for wild-release, but until that time the welfare of these broken monkeys is my top priority.

For further information on my project, the sanctuary and the monkeys you can visit my website: http://www.ecoparqueelfenix.org/

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