This summer I worked at the Born Free Sanctuary assisting with the care of their Japanese snow monkeys, or Macaca fuscata. Many of these monkeys are descendants of a group in Japan (Fedigan & Asquith, 1991) which came to the Sanctuary a few years ago. I was Born Free’s first intern, so it was a learning experience for all of us.
Every morning I got up at 6:30 a.m. and helped the staff load the trucks with food from the large refrigerator unit. Once the food is loaded up, it is distributed to the enclosures that house the monkeys. We threw the food out at certain spots in the wild enclosures and place food on feeding platforms for the semi-wild enclosures, which are smaller. This job requires quite a bit of physical strength and endurance. I have definitely developed a lovely muscle tone during my work days here at the sanctuary.
The main enclosure is where the wild monkeys reside. These are descendants of a group of monkeys from Japan. One of the roadblocks with doing research while on assignment at the sanctuary is that the morning feeding time is one of the best times to observe these monkeys. This is the one time of day I was able to see all three infants on numerous occasions. Feeding time is also when the monkeys exhibit a great deal of their hierarchical behaviors, even though feed is plentiful. This is a time you get to know who eats first and who may be related and what the family’s rank is. Because these macaques are matrilineal, rank runs through the female lines. Interestingly, some of the lesser ranked monkeys were quite robust. I often wondered if metabolism, or just excellent food-getting skills, were at play.
On Wednesdays, the food delivery truck came and I assisted the employees with unloading the truck into the refrigerator. This was very hard work; but the good news is, we were in the refrigerator! This was one of my favorite times of the day, because I was able to see what new food me and the monkeys would be sharing that weekend. There were some deliveries that brought the most ripe, juicy and delicious fruit.
What does this have to do with the macaques? It is very interesting to see what and how they eat. Sometimes they would take the best piece of cantaloupe I had tasted in years and scoop out the seeds, then throw the rest on the ground. It was almost painful to me. Other times, they would eat a piece of fruit just on the outside of the seeds and throw the seeds out. If they had been eating native plants, they would have acted as great seed dispersing organisms. These are some of the wonderful things that can be observed while at the sanctuary. However, as I mentioned, the best time is during a time when everyone is in a hurry to move on to the next task, as they have many jobs to do. This may be an insurmountable issue, as this is really when the staff needs the most help.
Once all the monkeys were fed, I assisted the employees with construction projects around the sanctuary. A night or two a week, after taking a break, I would go into the main enclosure to observe and take video. Because the work I did during the day was very physically demanding, however, I had little energy to do much when the day was over.
One particular week, we moved a blind female macaque from a large, wild-type enclosure to one of the smaller semi-wild enclosures, as she was not getting enough food, grooming, or protection from any of her group members. She was no longer an effective forager due to the loss of sight, as well as the lack of defense from other monkeys. This lead to everyone stealing her food if a human did not stand there to supervise her. This presented an additional problem: she was only able to effectively eat for a few minutes every morning as that enclosure was given food. Normally, the monkeys spend a portion of each day foraging for insects, tree bark, left-over food, and of course water. Therefore, we made the decision to move her to the smaller enclosure.
This was a great day for me to be at the sanctuary. I was able to assist the director with netting and anesthetizing the female, who we called Carmen. Very exciting stuff for me, a girl who had thought she would someday be a veterinarian. We gave her an antibiotic, some vitamin B, and some topical for her eyes—one had a cataract, while the other has atrophied and is really almost nonexistent. Conversely, another blind monkey in the same enclosure the female came out of seems to get support from others, so is able to access enough food and water to allow him to survive in the wild-type enclosure.
Once in her new enclosure, Carmen acclimated quickly. The director decided to try her with a male Macaca mulatta (rhesus macaque) as an enclosure mate. When we first put them in together I was really nervous, because Carmen had so little positive contact with other primates. The male was very curious and seemed very peaceful when he entered the enclosure. The first time he tried to touch Carmen, she jumped out of her skin. This actually happened at least twice. However, by the end of the first 30 to 45 minutes, he was grooming Carmen. It was such a gratifying experience. I was elated for the rest of that day. Since then, he has been seen grooming Carmen often. He does insist on controlling the food that goes into the enclosure, which is normal, considering that Carmen exhibited behaviors of a lower status female. She has not only gained sufficient weight, but she also looks very healthy and shiny now, thanks to regular grooming. I learned that grooming is important for removing parasites and for behavioral reciprocity, but it also has an important aesthetic function.
The director of the sanctuary has been kind enough to extend offers for future visits and research opportunities to me, which I may be able to take advantage of outside of regular college curriculum. If nothing else, he is a great guy and a great connection to have. I could not have worked with a more dedicated and compassionate man. Going forward, I will take my experiences and connections made through the sanctuary and go as far as I can to make these people and the monkeys proud of my work. I feel that I am a reflection of not only my mothers hard work, but all of my professors and mentors, as well. There may already be a Jane Goodall, but she can not take on primate conservation by herself. There is still a lot of work to be done and I want to be a part of that work.
Fedigan, L.M. and Asquith P.J. 1991. The Monkeys Of Arashiyama, Thirty-five Years of Research In Japan And The West. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.