The monkey section at La Senda Verde is different from all the other sections for quite a few reasons. First of all, only male volunteers are allowed to work in the monkey section. This is because quite a lot of the monkeys can be aggressive towards females.
A part of the reason for this is that monkeys in general can be more aggressive to females, but also it’s sadly because of the abuse that they received when they were kept in captivity – usually the monkey was chained up somewhere outside a house, and in Bolivia usually it’s the women who are at home all day – so the monkey associates women with the abuse. Many of the monkeys have been hit with sticks, beaten, kicked etc etc. Some of the monkeys have had extremely traumatic violent experiences at the hands of their previous owners.
There are four species of monkey at La Senda Verde (actually there are a few more species that are special cases…. more about that in other post…) – spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys, and capuchin monkeys. These monkeys all live outside the caged area, and so in theory can come and go as they please (there are some monkeys that are in cages… more about that later…)
There are about 20 spider monkeys, 20 squirrel monkeys, and 20 howler monkeys, and around 80 or so capuchin monkeys (because the monkeys are not in cages they can’t really be counted properly – they are in a large, steep, jungle area – most of which is not accessible by humans!)
The spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys and howler monkeys wander around all over the place, and in general the squirrel monkeys and the howler monkeys keep themselves to them themselves – you occasionally see them wandering near the restaurant area or the other animal areas – but not that often. To be honest, I’m not even sure if these monkeys get fed or not?! …or whether they just help themselves to whatever is around and eat what is in the forest…
The spider monkeys are trouble-makers and often loiter near the restaurant area and near the other animal areas to try and steal food. They also like to come and sit on you, and take away anything that you are carrying, and they try and get into the ‘human enclosure’. They are MUCH faster and stronger than any person, so if a spider monkey is in the area you have to very CAREFUL! 🙂 Some of them can change mood at the drop of a hat, so it’s important to try and not upset them, as unfortunately they can and will bite you. 🙁
The most famous spider monkey in La Senda Verde is Maruka. She is VERY VERY old for a spider monkey (around 27 years old, and normally spider monkeys live to around 15 – 20 years old). Her story is very sad – she was constantly beaten, and had her teeth pulled out with pliers which broke her jaw. Maruka is allowed to wander anywhere, as she is old and harmless.
As a volunteer working with the monkeys, the only monkeys that you deal with are capuchin monkeys. These monkeys live in a big ‘troop’ which is like a ‘monkey city’ – going in there feels like entering another world – a world where the monkeys are in charge… They are VERY clever monkeys – capuchins are the species that they use in movies, so they look familar. They are able to use tools and are expert at getting inside ANYTHING… they are smart enough to take keys out of your pocket and then go and open a padlocked door with them – so you need to be aware of ‘monkey security’ at all times when you are in the capuchin area.
The capuchin area is basically a big area of jungle with a river on one side, and a mountain on the other side – forming a natural boundary of where they roam. The monkey colony is a highly political organisation with some monkeys more important than others. The ‘president’ is the alpha male monkey of the troop. The alpha male capuchin was actually the first monkey rescued by La Senda Verde. If the monkeys were left to their own devices, then there would be a lot of bloodshed over the years (both monkey and human!) so the colony is managed using some cages and some tethers. For example, the alpha male is in a cage along with his girlfriend and a few other monkeys. This means that a) the monkeys won’t all just disappear over the mountain (the troop always stays with the alpha male), b) the alpha monkey can’t kill any other monkeys, and c) other monkeys can’t try and kill the alpha male to take over.
Monkeys that are too aggressive, or monkeys that have a big problem with some of the other monkeys, or monkeys that are picked on etc are located in cages or on tethers so that they can be part of the troop but not be the cause of issues in the colony. The rest of the monkeys go where they like.
There are feeding and water platforms throughout the colony area, and the volunteers job is quite simple – clean the platforms and put the food on them – THREE times a day. There is a circuit through the colony, and one volunteer cleans the platform, and the other follows behind and places the food (there are always 2 volunteers on the monkey section) The monkeys inside the cages are fed by the monkey keeper – volunteers are NOT allowed in any of the monkey cages as it is deemed too risky.
Aside from the normal feeding, there is a bottle of special milk formula to hand out to smaller monkeys, and each day the drinking pools need emptying, washing out, and re-filling. Also, every so often the waste food on the ground gets raked up to prevent cockroaches which can be harmful to the monkeys if they eat them.
So… what do the monkeys think of the volunteers?! Well, they see you like a big monkey…. so the monkeys that want to be your friend will jump on you, lick your head, try and pick fleas off you etc. these monkeys groom each other, so they try and do that to you as well. Some monkeys will try and take whatever you have in your hands. Some monkeys will nibble you, some monkeys don’t like you coming near them, and most monkeys will just ignore you. The monkeys that are sitting on your shoulder are also quite happy to wee on you…. yes, you get VERY dirty working in the monkey area.
At first it feels like entering a war zone where you are violently assaulted by monkeys constantly – it’s a bit unnerving to be honest. But, after a while you actually stop noticing that there is a monkey on your shoulder trying to pull the buttons off your shirt and weeing on you at the same time – yes it does sound quite NOTICEABLE 🙂 But you DO actually stop noticing…. 🙂
The main things to remember are:
– NO screaming, shouting, running etc – these kinds of actions get the monkeys VERY overexcited and unpredictable.
– If a monkey has got something off you, NEVER try and pull it away from the monkey – it may attack you, and even though it’s a lot smaller than you, it’s stronger and can bite you.
– If a monkey is behaving aggressively towards you, slowly leave – don’t stare at the monkey, don’t turn your back and run. Be VERY careful near any monkeys that are on heat – they are dangerous and unpredictable.
What did I think about volunteering on the monkey section?
I ended up with 4 days on the monkey section, and although I was nervous at first, I came to enjoy it quite a lot. The work itself is a little physical – the food basket and water bucket are quite heavy and you have to lug it around the feeding stations, three of which are in an area called the ‘island’ – which is down a very steep hill with a slippery trail. Two of the plugs for the drinking pools are missing, so every day you have to make new plugs out of leaves… YES, I’m not joking – this used to drive me slightly mad sometimes, as they always leaked, and the monkeys would poke the leaves out with a stick on purpose…..
The working area was great, as it’s away from everything else, and you are pretty much just in the jungle with the monkeys. There are great views all around and it’s all in the open air. It really felt like being in another world out there – it felt like I was a foreign visitor to an exotic land run by monkeys. The guy in charge of the monkeys was great, and easy to get along with.
Some of the monkeys you sort of get to know – they all have names, but I’m not so great at remembering names – so I knew them mostly by names such as ‘the monkey who jumps on you and licks your neck as you arrive down in the island area’. Some of the monkeys are notorious enough that even I knew their names… yes, ‘Kelly’ the dangerous biting monkey (fortunately Kelly was in a cage) (Unfortunately, she still tried to bite you if you were close enough…) and ‘Inti’, the ‘rock-banging’, scary monkey…
All in all, it was one of my favourite sections – it was such a different experience from the other sections, and something that I think is really unique.
Unfortunately it was a little risky to take cameras/phones into the monkey area, as the monkeys can steal them out of your hands – so we don’t have many pics…
Now as I mentioned previously, females were not able to volunteer in this section. However, so that female volunteers were able to experience the monkeys in some way, there was a thing called ‘SNACK TIME’! Every day at 3pm, the monkeys got snacks – usually some kind of fruit – and at that time, up to two female volunteers could come in with us and help hand out the snacks.
Snack time took place in an area away from the most ‘female-hating’ monkeys, and everybody sat down and relaxed in the same area. So, CC came to snack time a couple of times and got to hang out with the monkeys as well! 🙂 🙂
Both myself and CC enjoyed our time in ‘monkey world’, and we were also very pleased that we survived unscathed! 🙂