Volunteering in a monkey sanctuary

Upper Sixth IB Student, Antonia Illingworth, was the winner of the Mary Greaves Hamilton Prize (for intellectual curiosity) in 2017.

The prize carries a £250 award to enable the student to plan an experience to further develop an interest relating to her likely course of study or career. Antonia reflects her experience volunteering in a monkey sanctuary.

 A few weeks ago, with the help of the school, I was able to start off my summer with an amazing experience – working as a volunteer at the Wild Future’s Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall. I had the opportunity to work alongside specialists in primate conservation and care and learnt a lot about how we can do our bit to have a real and consequential effect on the conservation of global and local biodiversity.

There are four different species of primates at the sanctuary, and while I mainly worked with capuchins like Joey, I loved being able to brush my teeth in the morning and out of my window see Pablo’s effortless swinging through the branches of his enclosure. At the time I was staying, 37 monkeys found their sanctuary with Wild Futures, but I’ve picked out a few individuals whose stories I want to share with you.

The first is that of Mario, a Barbary Macaque. On my first day at the sanctuary I was led around by an inspiring young woman called Julie who having studied in Germany had since been travelling the world, and having come back from Costa Rica, now hoped to complete a PhD in animal behaviour. She led me all the way up to the top of the sanctuary hill where we stopped to watch the Barbary Macaques enjoying the evening sun, lumbering through their enclosure with heavy yet graceful movements that seemed to run almost on a different time scale. Their muscular jaws and large facial pouches, able to store as much food as could fit in their stomachs, make the macaques impressive creatures. When I expressed my amazement, Julie began to tell me the struggles that these animals had faced before sanctuary life. Mario, for example, now the strong leader of his monkey group, had been found chained to a lamp-post in Paris probably after being kept as a pet or circus animal. To watch him now, foraging in a large enclosure, it seemed almost impossible that he could have made this transition from such a damaging start in life, and yet here he was, successfully enjoying a fulfilled existence.

Perhaps the most touching of the stories I encountered at the monkey sanctuary was that of Joey, the capuchin. I spent most of my time working with capuchins, preparing their food in the mornings, cleaning out their enclosures and making enrichment that I now know is a vital support for the mental wellbeing of these animals. Joey was kept in a small cage for 9 years. Clearly the conditions he was kept in were inadequate. He was left permanently disabled and is unable to fulfil the behaviours he would be able to if he hadn’t suffered being kept as a pet. It was not only physical damage that he suffered, but mental damage. It was truly disturbing to be shown the pre-rescue videos of him rocking backwards and forwards in an attempt to find some comfort. Without stimulation, there was nothing else he could do. A few of the rescued monkeys at wild futures will continue to show possessive tendencies over soft toys, as they lacked early maternal and social relationships.

Thankfully, in his new life at wild futures, Joey has enrichment made by the team which I had great fun helping with. We collected flowers from around the garden and used monkey nuts to make special parcels and everyone’s favourite ‘box in a box in a box in a box’ (an extreme form of monkey pass the parcel) alongside the odd miscellaneous wellie that had been abandoned by past volunteers and was now gratefully filled with ripped paper to create an intriguing lucky dip. All this now makes Joey’s life much more enjoyable, and just shows the kind of support wild futures offers.

Other monkeys at the sanctuary had also suffered poor diets, such as being fed children’s cereal and coca cola which led to their having induced diabetes, and one capuchin had been kept on a collar and lead when his owners could no longer control him. After this dramatic oppression of their natural behaviours, it was amazing that when David Attenborough came to film at the site a few years ago he was able to observe the monkeys ripping apart red chillies and spring onions and rubbing them all over their bodies to repel mosquitoes. Being someone who suffers quite dramatically from mosquito bites, I’m very jealous of this interesting instinctual capability.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the primate pet trade that has threatened the existence of primates in the wild. They also face being hunted for meat and the ever-increasing threat of habitat loss. These threats being so, and after hearing all about the suffering of the monkeys before their rescue with wild futures, I hope you are shocked by the fact that it is still legal to own certain exotic pets, including primates in the UK, as long as you can get your hands on the right licence. As the suffering of these individuals shows, monkeys can never be adequately cared for as pets. They deserve an admiration and respect as any other member of our global community of beings. That’s why I would urge you all to sign the petition which you can get to on the link: https://www.wildfutures.org/petition/. Although it may be true that many of the primates kept in the UK are done so without the proper licence, it is still inhumane that a person might be legally allowed to privately keep a primate in their own home.

I hope that I’ve shown you how important this charity and the work it does is to me. It didn’t just show me how to care for primates in captivity but taught me lots of life lessons about living in community. I spent my two weeks with some of the most amazing students I’ve ever met. In the evenings we enjoyed food from all across Europe, as most of the students were carrying out the European Voluntary Service programme. One of the keepers took us on a beautiful evening walk down to the point of Rame head. Even though Cornwall views hold their own special kind of archaic beauty, they’re by no means the only place you can go if you want to explore natural environments before even leaving the UK. We are lucky in that our school is close to lots of habits for UK wildlife on the decline. Priory Marina for example has some great nature walks, and if your interested in protecting UK wildlife such as hedgehogs then this is a great place to start. When I spoke to one of the head keepers at the site, he explained to me that though the sanctuary was creating an environment as good as possible for these monkeys to live in, their situation was by no means the ideal. “Primates should live in the wild.” He told me. It seems to me that the only way to achieve a world in which these wonderful little creatures and many others like them are protected, is to continue to educate as far and as wide as possible about the damaging effect that selfish, human centric ideas such as the primate pet trade can have on the natural world, a world that we all whether we like it or not have to share together.

I want to leave you with a final thought, projects to end the primate pet trade are important. They alleviate suffering, and they promote the wonderful biodiversity of our planet – a planet that needs our care and attention not at our own convenience, but right now, right now in this very second.

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