How I Fell In Love With A Wild Monkey
Okay, well maybe love is too strong of a word. BUT I will say I was fond of this particular monkey. It all started when I began my internship at a sanctuary in Panama. We were rehabilitating juvenile howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) that had been rescued from the pet trade. The goal was for these juveniles to eventually disperse and join a wild troop.
The sanctuary was perfectly located on the edge of a forest. You could step right into the luring lianas and organic vegetation from your back door. Tall trees draped over the property and created a pass-through across the sanctuary to miles of extended forest.
There had already been a successful rehabilitation when I arrived. She was a female howler who had been rescued from the pet trade. She successfully joined the “resident” troop and became the dominant female. She had given birth three times already and appeared to have a long life ahead of her. However, it wasn’t her that caught my eye, but she was a beautiful monkey with the most vibrant gold mantle.
I was out in the field one day taking behavioral data on a different wild troop, identifying individuals. They had a home range that overlapped with the resident troop. If you are not already familiar, howler monkeys howl first thing in the morning, usually around 4 or 5 AM. It is thought that they do this to announce which areas of the forest they will use so as to reduce the chance of contact with other troops. This particular day the wild troop and the resident troop became too close for comfort.
Another thing to note about howlers – they can be aggressive, but they mainly use their howling to say “stay away!”, or “Here I am!” Mostly when two groups meet it will turn into a howling contest until one of them leaves. (Check out this video in case you’ve never heard them!) When I first heard them at the DANTA field school in Costa Rica I was terrified and excited at the same time. They sound scary, but man, they are so cool!
SO when these two howler groups began howling back and forth, all I could think was, “It’s about to go down!” Ha! I snatched my binoculars to get a closer view. As I zoomed in and focused, there he was. Macho (as we had named him). He was the best looking howler I had seen on the property. No scars or abnormalities, perfectly symmetrical, and utterly beautiful. He was the only adult male (next to his subadult son, Jack) in the resident troop. He was taking on a wild troop with three adult males and a few subadults! I watched as he puffed himself up and began howling in warning to this other troop. I swear his howl shook my bones it was so loud. It was the most amazing thing I had seen. It certainly put the others to shame. With all of the odds against him and 5 opposing males howling in unison, he forced them to move out of his territory. I knew at that moment if I was a female howler, I would want to be in his troop.