I was about ten years old when I made the discovery that animals weren’t all they seemed in pictures and in stories. I used to beg my parents to take me to the zoo at every opportunity as watching animal behaviour was utterly enthralling to me and still is.
On one particular weekend jaunt, we were at Dudley Zoo and we went to the ubiquitous elephant house. We all know that due to their high intelligence that elephants mourn the loss of others which makes them a cut above the rest of the animal kingdom. We are also on their side when the weak one is running away from a mauling by a pack of lions on BBC One.
One elephant took a shine to my brother and attempted to pull him over the railing whilst he was stroking its trunk. It took a lot of manpower to fight the strength of the elephant and luckily there were a lot of visitors in the elephant house that day to help. If that happened now it would be all over the internet.
I started volunteering at the rescue centre near Puyo because we met a woman in a bar who asked us too and we agreed. It meant that it was time to add a lot more animal anecdotes to add to my repertoire.
On the first morning, I had a shower in the volunteer quarters while the escaped three-legged capuchin monkey sat on top of the stall, staring at me. The only saving grace was that he wasn’t wanking.
Capuchin monkeys or capuchinos as they are sometimes known in Ecuador are truly intelligent and fascinating creatures. I felt very privileged to observe their behaviour on a daily basis during feeding and cleaning times or sometimes just watching them for no reason. I will tell you about our cast of characters as they were certainly a fascinating bunch.
I would have to run to check on them when I could hear them fighting. They made so much commotion that I constantly feared that one of them would pull a limb off another one. This was a justified concern as that happened to Trey (the tripod) and he has lived in solitary confinement ever since, largely ignoring us except to shriek at the top of his lungs whenever we closed off one side of the cage to give it a scrub.
Another monkey which gave us cause for concern was the medical monkey who had a chunk taken out of her arm during a scrap. She then now resided in the makeshift shed clinic so that she could have daily medical attention hence her nickname. In the first days of the injury, we had to hold her down to change the dressing and to clean the wound as she screamed and screamed in a way that was so truly unholy that I remember it to this day.
Every day she pulled off the bandage and proceeded to bite and scratch at the flesh of her arm in a way that so disturbingly echoed self-harm in a human that we packed her off to the vets until our nerves calmed down. She came back to us almost back to full health so she went back to the shed for a short interim period and during this time she managed to pull over the medical drawers and open them. I found her playing with syringes and snacking on a rubber glove just when I had recovered my nerves.
We had a particularly amorous monkey called Jack who believed in making love, not war. He used to climb down girl’s shirts and whilst swinging on their bras he immersed himself fully in the breasts in a way that I can only describe as the primate version of motorboating. He would then piss on you and leave. At least I could only hope that it was urine.
Scarlet was in and out of solitary confinement when I first met her, one door away from the medical monkey. This was because she had miscarried a baby and she was depressed. She then started to act strangely again, she was very luvvy duvvy and holding her stomach, we had strong suspicions that she was pregnant again.
Her behaviour continued but the ‘pregnancy’ didn’t progress and in the end, we had to draw the conclusion that it was a false pregnancy after the trauma she had been through. We reintroduced her into the main cage and she returned to normal. She showed very little interest when later on we introduced her to a baby capuchin much later and she no longer wanted to be a parent.
Gappy was a particularly aggressive alpha male who had to be put in a special area whenever we went in the cage, especially as we had enough on our hands with Jack up in our boobs. One time I didn’t bother to trap him and he bit me very hard on the head, with the remaining teeth that he has on that side, hence the name Gappy.
Gappy lived with Medi monkey after she was reintroduced along with Jack, Gentle and Skinny in the right-hand cage. Gentle was named because she was small and would gently take food from you, and would lightly touch you at the same time. She once managed to undo my belt with her nimble fingers but she was sassy enough to bite a volunteer who tried to stroke her once which was fair enough.
Skinny 1 was the slightest and least dominant monkey. He stayed at the top of the cage most of the time and well away from Gappy.
Mine and Helen’s personal favourite capuchin was Scrubber. He was an absolute gent and his nickname came about because he would grab a scrubbing brush and help ‘clean up’ before getting bored and throwing it on the floor. It was strange that people with similar personality traits would get on with the same monkey personalities.
He was an attractive capuchin with golden fur and like many show beauties he had some serious issues. He’d been used in a kind of circus and as a result, he seriously hated women with blonde hair. Even if a blonde-haired volunteer put a hat on he would pull it off and flip out. He really changed when we had more volunteers, he trusted us less as he saw us associating with people who he thought would put him in danger. I started to become more wary of him which just made his behaviour worse.
Scrubber lived with Hairy, Ninja, Scarlet and Stinky. Hairy was so-called as she loved to sit on your back and cover herself with your hair. She loved the smell and texture of hair and you would have a proper bedhead when she’d finished with you. Stinky got her name because she was generally a bit of a reprobate and she would always piss on you. She got the most action out of all the monkeys and she always had a male jammed in at the rear, usually Scrubber who liked a bit of rough hence why he liked me and Helen so much.
There was one monkey that we underestimated and that was Skinny 2 as just like Skinny 1 in the next cage he was the least dominant and only came down to feed after everyone else. However, when the padlock wasn’t closed properly one day so they managed to open it and escape. This is apart from Hairy who stayed behind probably due to the constant supply of human hair that was available to fuel her addiction.
We managed to get all the monkeys back inside, all except Skinny 2 who evaded all traps and attempts to capture him. He happily sat up in the tree canopy munching fruit and harassing the squirrel monkeys. If he were going to go wild then it wouldn’t be a problem but he was not going anywhere. But I had a plan. Every day I handed him in order to gain his trust. After a week of doing this, he would come closer to me and I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. All the commotion brought Helen and the volunteers down in a shot. We got him back in the cage quick sharp and we renamed him Ninja.
The reason so many capuchin monkeys end up at rescue centres is that they are too popular for their own good. They are used in films, experimented on in laboratories, trained as ‘seeing eye monkeys’ for the blind and the ultimate indignity of being put in nappies and kept as family pets. Whilst I understand the appeal of this species of monkey in particular due to their brains and beauty, I think you would have to be certifiable to have one in your home. They are vicious little bastards and very high maintenance to hand rear them from birth which you would have to do in order to have them as a ‘pet’.
I have little sympathy for people who raise capuchins and are surprised when this wild animal doesn’t behave. Some people attack them and we end up rescue centres full of angry little monsters who in turn attack the centre workers. A solitary male woolly monkey killed his primate girlfriend and actually beat one of the Ecuadorian women to the point where she was lucky to get out of the cage alive. Why the hell she would risk being in the cage with a woolly monkey in the first place is anybody’s guess.
Despite the bite marks and piss stains I developed a fondness for the monkeys to the extent that I would talk about them constantly and show pictures of them down at the pub. I was like a headteacher with a rowdy class of children who would sadly never improve. Most weekends I would travel to Banos or the nearest town of Puyo to either go out, get my washing done or buy supplies.
One time I was on the bus back to the rescue centre with supplies from Puyo and a drunken bloke sat next to me with a serious case of the noddies. I stared out of the window, ignoring him until he threw up all over me. The bus driver came and picked him up by his belt and literally threw him off the bus. Affirmative action. He then used a spray to half-heartedly clean it up. Luckily he didn’t try to clean me and I sat with my wet trousers until I was back at the centre. The animals were worth it though, I think.
Apart from the capuchins and the solitary woolly monkey, we had an array of parrots including macaws, a turtle, two tortoises, a red titi monkey, a brain-damaged kinkajou, six peccaries, two coatis, a guan, a toucan, two tayras and a margay.
The margay was a particularly beautiful animal and the only cat at the centre. A margay is a solitary, nocturnal tree dweller like a small ocelot which is listed as near-threatened by the IUCN. They used to be hunted as part of the wildlife trade but now they are more threatened by loss of forests in Central and South America.
An interesting fact about them is that they only have two nipples to suckle their young whereas their fellow cats have more. This is probably because they usually only give birth to a single kitten and it is rare for them to have two. They have also been observed mimicking the call of tamarin young in order to catch their prey which is incredible for a cat. As it is a better tree climber than its close relative the ocelot, it is sometimes referred to as a ‘tree ocelot’.
I felt very lucky to observe such an elusive creature at such close quarters and its cage was far from the centre so it got some peace and quiet. It was fed once a week when the family would give us a disgusting live chicken that had fallen ill and was usually covered in its own excrement to feed it. The margay would pounce on the chicken and kill it with one bite before dragging it back to its house. Sometimes the family would bring their friends down to watch the hunting of the chicken which made me angry as I felt like they were just using the margay for their own entertainment.
The two tayras were a pair of mad bastards that reminded me of two excitable otters running back and forth. They were referred to as ‘cabezas de mate’ or ‘teaheads’ in Spanish or even ‘old mans’ head’ as they have pale coloured heads and brown or orangey coloured bodies a bit like pine martens. They are a part of the weasel family but much bigger than weasels.
Helen and I had a crazy idea to go to one of the oil towns like Shell and get one of the petrolhead blokes with a light aircraft to drop them in the rainforest somewhere so that they couldn’t turn up at a human settlement. Needless to say that never happened. It probably would have turned into a terrible version of an officer and a gentleman, apart from with alcohol, oil, shady characters and giant ferrets all in the mix.
I did once get stuck in the tayra cage with one of them on top of my head as we hadn’t been able to get both in the holding pen. It was biting me repeatedly and I tried to remain calm whilst it treated me like I was a big tasty chew toy. Eventually, we distracted him and I raced out of there.
They are omnivores so they will eat pretty much anything. They are usually solitary but in this instance, they must have been kept together as pets. Tayras are easily domesticated so they are kept to hunt mice and rats like a cross between a cat and a ferret.
Little was I to know that one of the tayras was going to die and as well as the trauma the other animals would put me through, including the evil parrots.