For the primate enthusiast, it’s easy enough to fixate on the alpha species: the baboons, chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos favored by many primatologists and film crews. Relentlessly self-oriented, Homo sapiens enjoys a close look in the mirror—evolutionary or otherwise—so it’s no accident that these popular monkeys and apes are among the ones most closely related to us.
But there’s much to learn from—and much-needed work to do with-- primate species less closely our kin, and less celebrated. Owl monkeys are an excellent example.
Biologically, owl monkeys of Central and South America are unique. Their huge eyes reveal their nocturnal nature, unheard-of in other monkeys (or in apes). Socially, they are atypical too. In the wild, adult males share food with and otherwise care for their young, a pattern shared with other monogamous monkeys like marmosets and tamarins but highly unusual in the primate order as a whole.
For me, these days it’s all about getting to know animals as individuals. So I’m grateful to my friend Dr. Sian Evans, primatologist and managing director of the DuMond Conservancy, a non-profit organization located on the grounds of Miami’s Monkey Jungle. During my recent trip to Florida, Sian introduced me to Connie and Spruce, a pair of owl monkeys.
Spruce descends from a group that “went wild” after the winds of Hurricane Andrew destroyed its Conservancy home—though eventually they were lured back to shelter. Connie’s history is different: Wild-caught in Peru, she lived for years as a lab animal, undergoing malaria research, at the NIH and the CDC.
Now, the pair lives in safety. Both monkeys greatly enjoy the enrichment activities that Sian and her primate supervisor Molly Dodge prepare for them. Molly told me, “Connie and Spruce's favorite treats are cinnamon-raisin bread, shortcake, and of course bananas. Also we cut corn cobs in half, dip them into a mash of banana and honey, and hang them from the branches. This enrichment works well because it's big enough for both to get at, at the same time. They eat it Lady and The Tramp style, each at his or her own end.”
Sian related to me an owl-monkey story. Years ago, on her morning monkey rounds, she spied a hole in the foundation of one enclosure, created by a wayward raccoon. Head-counting, she discovered that the owl monkey Buster, father of one small family, was no longer alongside the others.
Sian recounts what happened next: “Happily I immediately spied a very worried Buster sitting on the limb of a large oak tree close to the enclosure. As soon as Buster spotted me he moved eagerly toward the cage as if to indicate he wanted to rejoin his family. Relieved that Buster's return appeared easy to orchestrate, I opened the cage door. I was not at all prepared for what happened next. Buster's three month old infant ran eagerly toward the open door in an unambiguous attempt to reunite with his father.”
Sian knew the wild data: intense father-infant bonds are common for owl monkeys. She continues, “I was witnessing further evidence of this and it was complicating my efforts to reunite Buster with his entire family. An exercise I had anticipated would take only 30 seconds finally took 30 minutes but careful maneuvers with the door eventually had the desired result with Buster and baby reunited INSIDE their enclosure!”
Already a fan, I was further impressed to learn that the Conservancy runs a program to connect “trainable mentally handicapped” (TMH) youth with care of the owl monkeys. The THM students, from a local high school, may have Down syndrome or IQ’s under 60, for example.
The students learn readily how to help prepare food for these gentle monkeys; in a giant feedback loop, people and monkeys all benefit. As a Conservancy document puts it, “In most cases this is the first time these students have had the opportunity to be a caregiver and to see a living being thrive under their care.”
Just as we don’t often hear much about owl monkeys, we don’t always hear enough about the less-famous organizations, places where fiercely dedicated people work (with strained resources) to make animals’ lives better in captivity and in the wild. The DuMond Conservancy is a small place that packs a big punch. Read more about its goals and how to help, here: Dumond Conservancy.