Sunday, September 14, 2008

Spending Time Behind Bars

One of my goals in life was to see monkeys in the wild. Growing up at the Florida Monkey Sanctuary in the 70's, I was surround by primates - squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, capuchins, baboons, siamangs and many more. Many had been taken from the wild and sold in the U.S. as pets, finding their way to the sanctuary through various means.
Some had been born in the U.S. or on the sanctuary and although their lives may have been better for coming to the sanctuary, they were never truly free. To see monkeys in the wild is to experience one of the most beautiful things in nature (which I have several times in Ecuador - I recommend it). To see monkeys in captivity is often heart breaking.

In 1988, many of the monkeys at our sanctuary were sent to other zoos and sanctuaries. I never imagined that 20 years later I would have the chance to see some of them again. But a friend of the sanctuary contacted me a few months ago and told me a few monkeys were changing hands and would be introduced to two sanctuaries in north Florida.

On our trip to Tennessee I thought it would be a good opportunity to visit. The sanctuary was not far from our route. The monkeys in question were Maddie (named after the Cybil Shepard character on Moonlighting) and Gertie (named for the Drew Barrymore character in E.T.). Gertie was born on the sanctuary in 1982. Her mother died at birth and my parents had to take care of her. She lived in the house for the first year or so. Lived in a crib. Wore a diaper. Watched cartoons with us. We essentially grew up with her.

I called the sanctuary when we were close and was informed she had been moved to a new facility which was only 15 minutes from where we were. It turns out her new home is a zoo - which concerned me and when we arrived the sign stated they were closed for a private function. So we became part of the private function and no one was the wiser. We were able to slip into the zoo and found our way to the spider monkey cages. No Gertie. We continued on to the back of the small zoo and found two black spider monkeys. Surely they would not recognize me after 20 years right? Maddie was younger than Gertie and was not raised in the house. I would never expect her to recognize me. She didn't get carried around to baseball games and out to restaurants. She didn't go to New York in the summer time with the family like Gert. Add the fact that Maddie now has testicles - I'm sure that this monkey had no idea who I was. Somewhere along the way, monkeys got switched. I called to Gertie and she came right over. Maybe she wants attention? Maybe this is part of her show?
MaLe called to Gertie. Nothing. She continued to stare at me and chatter. Gertie - not MaLe. I would love to think that she recognized me. The zoo keeper found it interesting and suggested the two spiders are usually shy. I'm not sure I wanted Gert to recognize me because I would have to leave her. As well intentioned as some of the zoos may be, its certainly not an idyllic life for these animals. We left and made arrangements to call the zoo director to see what I could do to help make a better life for the two spiders. Apparently Gert gets quite upset when she is separated from her new Maddie.

I'm not sure what I can do, but I will do my best to help her. It's good to know that they don't breed animals at this zoo. It's also illegal to import monkeys into the United States.

It breaks my heart to see animals in these conditions. It hurts having to leave Gert behind bars.

Click to hear Gertie chatter at me


  1. that's very sad and heartbreaking..
    what about contacting parrot jungle island? my vet is the vet there. if you want me to ask or get you in touch with her... Or what about seeing if Lion Country Safari might want them. I can't stand to see them in that cage. :(

  2. I'd like to consider all options certainly. The zoo in High Springs has suggested they will not sell Gert and Maddie and they will keep them there but I would want her to be in teh best place.

    I assume she would not be food at Lion Country Safari ;)

  3. Thank goodness you didn't put such a sad spin on your tale when you told it in Tennessee. It would have saddened me for the remainder of the trip!

    This issue again begs the question of the value of many zoos. While many of the larger zoos have made dramatic changes over the past 25 years - doing away with cages, improving habitat, creating challenges and stimulating environs for the animals - these smaller zoos and roadside attractions often remain in the dark ages, and I truly feel for the animals there. Frankly, it greatly frustrates me that such facilities are still allowed. But much like the pet trade in the U.S., we simply don't have the room or money to "rescue" all these animals and get them to a better life. So what do we do?

  4. We vote with our dollars in these cases. If people don't go - the zoos and roadside attractions won't survive.

    True ecotours shun caged animals and as we move towards a more ecofriendly culture - I think we will move away from substandard conditions for wildlife.

    When Gert came to her new home she was severely emaciated and had a skin condition. She was not expected to live. She looks much better and the skin condition has improved. She's in a better place - but that doesn't say a lot.

    I would suggest not patronizing zoos that allow breeding of the animals. I would also suggest encouraging facilities to go with open air cages and people should only patronize places with a primarily educational message.

    Zoos have value if the expose people to wildlife they might not otherwise see. But the living standard of the animals has to be of the utmost importance. Zoos should also highlight the conservation issues the wildlife faces. Stay away from roadside attractions.

  5. Forget the red tape, lets go for a good old B&E and spring Gertie and Maddie!! JK I'm such a dork I sat here and stared at the pictures and just cried. It's like finding that long lost hairy sister.

  6. The beauty is she doesn't seem to be a poop tosser! Diapers have a good influence on monkeys.

    oh - and you are a cry baby. I didn't cry. Or at least no one saw it.