Primate Behavior Showcase

Vanessa Cowart, Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary

The Born Free USA (BFUSA) Primate sanctuary, located in Cotulla, Texas on 186-acres of red soil, cactus, mesquite and sweet acacia is home to around 800 non-human primates, including around seven of the twenty species of macaques.  Macaques comprise a genus of Old World monkeys with nonprehensile tails, close nostrils and a complex social organization of the subfamily Cercopithecinae, and are the most geographically spread out genus of non-human primate.  Many of the macaques at BFUSA are  related  to the original troop of matriarchal, Japanese macaques who were brought to Texas after having been evicted from Kyoto, Japan in 1972.

The macaques live fervently and wildly on approximately 50 acres of wilderness called “Main”. They are provided with fresh food and water daily, but are left to carry out the lives of normal monkeys. The sanctuary exists to provide them with as normal a life as possible. That is, they are artificially given the resources a wild monkey would have but are left alone to forage, groom and carry on normal monkey behaviors so long as nothing interferes with an individual having access to these resources.  Many of the other primate residents have been rescued from exploitative circumstances and are ex-laboratory research, ex-pet or ex-entertainment.  Monkeys who come from these backgrounds many times are too confused to live a normal life. The sanctuary helps provide them with the interaction they missed out on.

Every activity (feeding, cleaning, medicating) is carried out with the intention of creating as little stress as possible on the monkeys. Therefore, it is important to know each monkey’s individual personality or specific needs in conducting even the simplest tasks. For example, two monkeys in a section of a semi-natural enclosure are blind. They rely on their hearing to designate where food is dropped. Normally, feeding is a quiet time so the atmosphere stays calm and stress-free for the monkeys. When we feed Helena and Puma, however, we acknowledge we are dropping off food and put it in the same place on the same table every time to ensure they have access to it.

Macaques have a complex social hierarchy. Many factors are considered when placing monkeys together in the same enclosure or how or in what order they are fed. Some monkeys are arthritic and require special ladders to get to feeding tables. Others are lower on the hierarchy and must be fed after the dominant monkey is fed to ensure all get their fair share. Goldie and Simon, who are blind and elderly, have trouble foraging on their own with the intense competition for food from more dominant monkeys. We ensure they are well-fed by placing several pieces of produce near-by and protecting them from other monkeys while they eat.

Initially, new monkeys are kept in semi-natural enclosures alone. They are within view of the established troops and are able to make vocalizations and become established in the group, but it is important to keep new monkeys physically isolated initially as a rushed introduction into the established troop could mean harm or death to the newcomer.  The vocalizations and facial displays made during the isolation period are part of the first step to becoming established within the troop. Macaques are social, communicative animals and make a variety of displays.

The displays from the BFUSA residents may be different from that of wild monkeys. They are captive monkeys from a variety of irregular backgrounds who now cohabitate. For this reason, it can be expected they exhibit different displays than their wild counterparts. For example, a grimace in macaques may be a display of anger or a fear display a subordinate monkey would give to a dominant monkey. Joey is an ex-pet whose “owners” mistakenly reinforced his grimace, thinking it was a smile. They interpreted a negative display as a positive one. He tends to be difficult to read now, but generally his “smile” is a positive display. Ex-pets still have instinctual monkey behaviors, but the reinforcement of these behaviors may have been absent or inappropriate.

The caregivers at BFUSA use their knowledge of macaque hierarchies and communication and their experience with captive macaques from irregular environments to provide the best possible care for the residents. Each monkey is a “he” or “she” with a name, personality, and history — with complex emotions and intelligence beyond those base brain instinctual emotions like greed or aggression or the compulsory draw to protect offspring. I witnessed a female snow monkey with her baby as she held him in her arms, groomed him and kissed his small face. These are animals who have the ability to feel shame, anticipation, boredom, concern, and love.

The three months I spent at BFUSA have given me an even deeper respect for sanctuary animals, the people who care for them and the bond that unquestionably forms between them. I am indebted to the caregivers at BFUSA for exposing to me the cruel histories of these intelligent animals, what can be done to protect them at this stage of their lives, and help prevent the cruelty of others.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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