Monkeying Around

Meet the desperate primates who have finally found a home

Joey is a capuchin monkey. A very engaging capuchin monkey. In the bright sunlight at Wild Futures Monkey Sanctuary near Looe, he happily poses for the camera, his slightly maniacal gaze watches James the photographer’s every move. Joey’s tongue sticks out, his back is arched through deformity and at eleven year’s old he’s half the size he should be.  The story of Joey’s life is pretty tragic. He was taken as a very young baby from the wild in Suriname, South America and brought back to London as hand luggage. In captivity he didn’t have a healthy diet and was kept in a minute cage where he never saw sunlight.

Liz Tyson, PR manager at the sanctuary, holds out her hand and Joey looks at her quizzically. We all sympathetically shrug our shoulders as if we are looking at someone who’s recovering in rehab.

Joey is just one of 23 residents at the sanctuary each one with a history of abuse and abandonment. There is Mario a Barbary macaque who was tied to a lamp post and left in the middle of a busy Paris street. Another macaque called Donkey was rescued from a circus in France and has a fear of little girls in pink dresses and flash photography. All the residents at the sanctuary are traumatised, but in their new home on the south Cornish coast they sunbathe, eat fresh food and connect with visitors.

It’s hard not to anthropomorphize these animals as you watch them interact with each other. Their human characteristics are fascinating but it is this fascination we have with primates that unfortunately supports a thriving and legal pet trade in the UK. If you want to own an exotic monkey, all you need is a licence.

Liz says that ‘officially’ there is a minimum of 5,000 primates kept as pets in this country. “That’s a very conservative figure,” she says. “It’s probably nearer 12,000”. Owners take on monkeys such as capuchins and squirrel monkeys, which unbelievably require no licence at all to own, from as early as six weeks old “They’re popular because of their intelligence and at such a young age without their mothers they are affectionate and needy.” explains Liz. “In the wild, monkeys belong to large groups in which there is a complex natural hierarchy. In captivity and alone, adolescent monkeys don’t experience this and end up becoming distressed and aggressive towards their owners.”

It’s at this stage that the Sanctuary often receives a call for help from the owners or animal authorities and heads to the rescue. “I don’t really like the word ‘rescue’”, says Liz, “We’re not the SAS, re-home is more appropriate. I don’t believe owners mistreat their pets intentionally; it’s just naivety and ignorance but obviously we are keen to give these monkeys a better environment to live in”

Recently the sanctuary has been working with government agencies such as DEFRA to bring in new legislation to protect primates in private ownership although in reality the sanctuary would like to see a total ban on keeping primates as pets “This April new rules to standardise minimum requirements for living conditions were introduced to help the welfare of these animals which I hope will go some way towards eliminating some of the problems they face in captivity” says Liz

It’s lunchtime and the fourteen capuchins tuck into their nut and polenta balls with pears to follow. Kodak who was rescued from a photographer’s shop in Greece is Joey’s best friend and is excitable. “Kodak has no social skills and gets in trouble with the other monkeys but has forged a huge friendship with Joey” explains Liz. I ask if I can feed them but any thoughts of a David Attenboroughesque moment are quickly dashed as only the keepers are allowed to get close to the residents. “Monkeys are curious, protective and jealous and treat strangers with caution,” says Liz “It takes a long time for the keepers to build a bond with them”

One of the keepers who gets up close to the monkeys is Petra Esterberg a primatologist from Finland, one of the sixteen staff on site. Petra has been at the sanctuary for three years. “I had been working in the field with gibbons in Asia, came here as an educational officer for the summer back in 2007 and have been here ever since” she says. “Obviously the monkeys here react very differently to how they would in the wild so for me it’s remarkable to see how they learn how to socialise together and adapt to their new home.”

The sanctuary was set up back in 1964 by the father of famous musician John Williams and was originally home to a group of rescued Woolly monkeys. This species is now protected by an international export ban so Liz hopes the five Woollys in residence now will be the sanctuary’s last. However it’s not the same story for the Barbary Macaques. Their natural habitat is in the northwest of Africa where there are only 3,500 of the species left in the wild yet 300 young macaques are still being illegally imported into Europe as pets every year

I ask Liz if they are considering a breeding program for the three macaques at the sanctuary. “The cedar forests where the monkeys live are being decimated for agricultural use,” she explains. “Personally, breeding animals in captivity is almost futile unless they have a habitat to go back to, what would be the point? “Her bluntness hits like a large extinct dodo. Of course, she is right. Where would they go? With their natural habitat destroyed a few token examples of a species in captivity would be no more than a travelling circus. Never was there such a hard-hitting argument for saving the environment.

Despite being a strong supporter of the “fly free my beauty” ethos, at the sanctuary the residents who have all been saved from appalling conditions are given the best care possible and I’m, for once, happy to see these primates safely behind bars where they are finally getting the respect and care they deserve.