Primates In The Wild Versus Captivity
The comparison of a wild-caught spot-nosed guenon and his captive-born son, which includes behavior towards family member and keepers, and neurotic tendencies.
In the days of importing primates into the United States to satisfy the public's curiosity of far-off lands, the primates themselves were given little thought. The definition of a zoo animal, at that time, was a living thing that needed only food, water, and shelter to exist. Young primates were ripped from their dead mother’s arms, thrown into frigid dark crates, and shipped overseas to people who knew nothing of their needs. These emotionally scarred orphans were then thrown into cages constructed of concrete and bars so the public could laugh at the child-like antics of a “monkey.” In the early days many orphans died behind cold iron bars, but the casualties in their homelands were much worse: entire troops of primates were killed as they tried to protect their zoo-bound youngsters. Through trial and tribulation zoologists learned how to keep primates alive in captivity, but that wasn’t enough. Those who lived had severe psychological disorders, exhibited anti-social behavior towards their cage mates, and were difficult for keepers to work with.
Eventually, through the pioneering research of primatologists such as Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey, zoos began to understand the complexities of primate societies and their need for psychological stimulation. This problem was brought to my attention while I worked as a zookeeper at a zoo in Louisiana. Many species were under my care, but none stick out in my memory more than a family of spot-nosed guenons (Cercopithecus nictitans)--a medium-sized, gray, arboreal primate from Central Africa, named for the white spot on their noses.
The family was dominated by Newton, a fourteen-year-old male, who was caught in the wild in 1987, as a one-year-old. Newton shared his exhibit with his mate Britta and their three sons: Hank, Buster, and Turbo. Hank was the oldest son and became my favorite of the group. I spent all of my free time observing the behavior of the group. It was at this time that I noticed the differences between Newton and Hank. Hank was friendly to keepers, considerate to his family members, and well-adjusted to his life in captivity; Newton terrorized keepers, harassed his family members, and developed many neurotic tendencies. Although they looked exactly alike, shared the same environment, and shared half of their genetic material, they behaved nothing alike.
When I approached the enclosure, which was circular and fifteen by fifteen feet, Newton would begin going through the motions of his aggression display, which included head bobs, brow lifts, and the baring of his sizeable canines; on the other hand, Hank would welcome me with a greeting chuckle unique to the species. If I got too close to the bars, Newton would grab at me aggressively and try his best to bite me. If Newton was not paying attention, Hank would groom and hug me gently through the bars, as if I were a member of the troop. When Hank’s affections were noticed by Newton, he would punish him severely with pinches, bites, and verbal chattering.
When feeding time came, Newton went far beyond his duties as patriarch of the group. It is normal for the alpha-male of this species to eat first, but Newton took his rank to the extreme. He would throw his smaller sons across the cage with great force if he saw them with a morsel of his favorite food. Britta, his mate, would clutch her babies in her arms and chatter threats to Newton at each feeding. Hank, being the oldest, would grab bits of food (when he could) and bring them to his mother and younger brothers. He paid severely when he was caught in this act. In one instance, Britta physically defended her son against Newton, which is a very rare thing for a female of this species to do. Newton’s increased aggression sparked some creative ways for the keepers to get food to the rest of the group. We tried distracting him with bananas, which he would stuff into his cheek pouches, making him look as if he swallowed an ostrich egg. That wasn’t practical due the necessity of two keepers. The only way to insure the entire troop was eating properly was to separate them at feeding time.
In our attempts to alleviate the tension within the group, we increased the amount of stimuli within the enclosure. We added trees, vines, rope-swings, a log with holes drilled throughout to provide more challenging food acquisition, and a large water tub for swimming. Hank enjoyed all of our efforts and immediately began trying out each one. Newton seemed annoyed by the new items; his first responses were to dump the water tub and perform an elaborate threat display. Hank seemed fearful of his father’s display, but the new things in his environment seemed to captivate him. As days went by, Hank continued using all of the new enrichment items in the cage while Newton sat at the edge of the cage, staring into the treetops across the sidewalk from the enclosure.
Newton’s tree staring daze was not the only strange behavior he exhibited. The following winter he began to pick the hair off of his tail and wrists. When there was no hair left on his tail, he picked the skin. This led to a severe infection that required the amputation of four inches of his tail. After his operation, he would sit staring into the treetops, picking at the remains of his tail for hours on end. Meanwhile, Hank had learned to swim underwater in the tub we provided, which is not characteristic of his species at all. Hank also developed a tag-like game, which he played with his younger brothers for most the day. Britta was the only one who would approach Newton, but only for grooming.
We spent many months trying to fix Newton’s problems, but nothing helped. After learning of Newton’s history, I began to understand why he wasn’t the friendly, well-adjusted guenon his son Hank was. Hank was born on a concrete floor behind bars; Newton was born in a lush tropical rainforest full of stimuli. Hank still had the loving arms of his mother to run to for comfort; poachers pried Newton off of his dead mother’s corpse. Hank is content with the naked trees in his exhibit; Newton remembers playing in the leafy treetops with his family group. Hank knows confinement; Newton remembers freedom.
Zoos are finally changing their attitudes towards the primates they keep. They have realized how important environmental enrichment and psychological stimulation are to primates. Laws and captive breeding programs have reduced the importing of primates. Unfortunately, it all came too late for Newton. While Hank enjoys his carefree life of confinement, Newton loses a little more of his tail each year and continues to stare into the treetops across from the cage; Father and son are inches apart--yet worlds away