The most important advice I will ever receive was given to me by a wise man, he told me: “think”. I was a teenager about to leave home for the first time to travel and explore India. Despite this advice being the most simplistic (and at that precise moment quite confusing), it was more valuable to me than the dearth of other tips and advice that apparently everyone seems to have for the first time traveller. “Think” is exactly what has got me through the toughest of situations, the most dangerous, the most tempting, and now: the most complicated. Yet this time, I am thinking like a monkey.
The reason for turning again to his sound word, is because our project is ending. I can now start reflecting on what we have accomplished and what goals to set ourselves for the coming years.
Our greatest achievements:
1) Constructing a larger more complex enclosure full of enrichment and visual stimuli for our eldest male: Panzaburro.
Panzaburro now enjoys swinging from ropes, resting on elevated platforms, and hiding in his shelter when it’s raining. His locomotion has improved, as has his overall demeanour-no longer is he frustrated and aggressive, instead he is calm and relaxed with people and other monkeys.
2) Constructing a second enclosure for the free ranging male: Pequitas.
Although Pequitas was a very good example of how a spider monkey should behave, his sexual aggression and promiscuous mating had resulted in an uncontrolled population. Inbreeding was a serious threat to the heath of the captive monkeys, as was the stress which resulted from his territorial patrolling and mobbing behaviour. Since his removal from the general population, Pequitas has in fact relaxed. He can still interact with the monkeys but without full contact and thus an inability to breed and control the movements of the females. He now enjoys resting alongside Panzaburro, who has become his very good friend. The females have also changed in their behaviour, becoming more social with each other and spending more time within the centre of the sanctuary, a place which they now feel is safe.
3) Providing friends to Zulu
After the installation of enrichment for the large social enclosure, Zulu was observed sitting closer to other monkeys. Within several days she became quite the socialite, and is now frequently observed grooming and playing with the young and adolescent monkeys. Even Zulu’s stereotypic behaviour has decreased, a huge indicator that she is coping with social stressors in a more normative way.
4) Getting every monkey here off the ground!
This is one of the greatest behavioural achievements of the project-and one I have felt strongly about from the off. Spider monkeys are arboreal primates, they have not evolved for a life on the ground, and our project shows this. Once we provided networks of ropes, static and flexible platforms, swings and ladders, every monkey has significantly increased their elevated space use….no more monkeys sitting upon the floor!
Our future goals:
1) To construct a large social enclosure for all the tethered and free ranging monkeys.
The free raging monkeys and the tethered monkeys deserve social enclosures for two equally important but differing reasons:
The free rangers have access to human and domestic animal food, the result of which has been the emersion of an obese monkey group. In a large enclosure their diets can be controlled, and they can be encouraged to exercise by using novel enrichments and feeding strategies.
The tethered monkeys on the other hand, need social stimulation more than other monkeys within the park for they have thus far had none. As a naturally fission-fusion species, social facilitation is crucial-particularly within a rehabilitation program. Enclosures will provide them social access, and an opportunity for staff to closely monitor their social and physical progress.
2) To construct a primate nursery
After the successful introduction of Moni (now renames Mylo) to our female Ciriaca, we have formulated a plan to construct a primate nursery for all new arrivals. This will allow all new arrivals a chance to socialize with other young monkeys, and have the care and mothering attention of Ciriaca (who is desperate for a baby). The nursery will be secure and safe but with full visual access to the main population, allowing for vocal and olfactory communication, thus making integration to the adult population an easier and less stressful process.
3) To begin an operant conditioning program
A dream of mine which I have had for Fenix since my arrival! The use of operant conditioning (or “positive reinforcement training”) will allow me to assess the behavioural and physical progress of each monkey with minimal stress to the monkeys. Training will provide a management tool based upon trust and co-operation, hence we will no longer need to devise complex strategies to catch and move monkeys between enclosures or for veterinary care. I will be writing a more in-depth post about operant conditioning for primates on my return, so watch this space for more information.
Until then, I look forward to returning to England, to “think” about the intricacies of statistics and thesis writing (albeit the part which is a lot less fun), and to think about how I’m to begin paying back my amounting student loan (an inevitable student-primate problem), all the while knowing that the small changes we have implemented here have had a hugely positive impact upon all the monkeys. Thinking like a monkey has been a rewarding experience, and as always my wise mans advice wins again…thanks Dad.