In the summer of 2017, I was introduced to six personable, hilarious, and loving individuals: Shawn, Ivy, Maya, Max, Puck, and Jade. They comprised the two troops of howler monkeys placed into my care during my volunteer placement at Wildtracks, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Sarteneja, Belize.
Wildtracks is a non-profit community dedicated to conservation and rehabilitation of endangered species in Belize. Their focus is mainly on rehabilitating and releasing wild Antillean manatees, spider monkeys, and howler monkeys, as well as more common animals in Belize like raccoons, deer, and coatis. The organization was established by Paul and Zoe Walker in 1990. They have a 95% success rate in their rehabilitation and release of howler monkeys, Currently, they are looking forward to a successful first release attempt of rehabilitated spider monkeys aimed to occur in December.
The rehabilitation process includes multiple stages. Monkeys come in and are placed in quarantine, until they are determined fit to integrate into a troop. Most monkeys the center receives are infants, orphaned from poaching or rescued from the illegal pet trade.
After quarantine, orphaned infants are placed in the nursery with other monkeys close to their age. This group of orphaned juveniles is called a "troop." After the nursery, the troops are moved into an outdoor enclosure to get used to a bigger space. The final stage before going back to the rainforest is called pre-release. The pre-release enclosure is comprised of open forest, surrounded by an electric fence for protection, to simulate a wild environment as accurately as possible. Once deemed fit, the monkeys are ready for release back into the wild. The rehabilitated howlers coming from Wildtracks have been continuously released in Fireburn Reserve, a rainforest in the region of Shipstern Nature Reserve in Corozal, Belize. Fireburn Reserve is a three hour journey away, bumping along an isolated dirt road, ending with a scenic boat ride to Fireburn village. The village is home to a Creole community that will gladly sell you an ice cold drink before trekking into the rainforest for a week to track the newly released monkeys.
Volunteers have the option of braving the rainforest in order to help track the released monkeys. I opted for this adventure. For nine days I stayed in the Fireburn field-base, waking up before sunrise to hike out and find the howlers in the trees we left them in the night before. It’s important to keep an eye on our released monkeys in order to ensure their success. In some cases the monkeys will continually come down to the ground. This can be very dangerous for them, on the rainforest floor they are much more vulnerable to predators. When this happens, we take the monkeys back to Wildtracks and keep them in pre-release until we think they are ready to try the rainforest again. With the aid of local trackers, we hiked for hours every day following the newly released howlers. Seeing these monkeys happy and traveling amongst the top of their trees was an experience I will never forget, and I’m grateful to be able to see first hand the successful results of the Wildtracks rehabilitation process for these animals.
When I arrived in June of last year I was placed in the nursery and assigned to work with the two troops mentioned previously. My duties included food preparation, bottle feeding, cleaning enclosures, and above all, being a loving and caring surrogate mother to these babies. Howler monkey diets rely heavily on leaves, so each feed required a trek out on Wildtracks property to find a different ‘browse’ to give the monkeys throughout the day. They had fig leaves, bamboo, gumbo-limbo, and Puck’s favorite, sarcropia leaves. Each food also included some variety of fruit, mango being the all time favorite for almost all of the monkeys at Wildtracks.
Each feed time included milk, prepared with milk powder and water, and given to the nursery residents via syringe. Milk time was the highlight of each feed for these guys, and often came with a milk-induced frenzy and competition over who could get the milk first. The males were often the most milk-aggressive amongst their troops, Shawn being the most notorious of the milk-bullies.
Being a “monkey-mom” was a very social responsibility, and in order to truly bond with these animals, I had to learn the language of the howlers. In the mornings, after their 10 o'clock feed the babies seemed to mellow out, climbing on my head and wrapping their tail around my neck for stability. A content howler likes to purr, and it’s only polite to purr back! Play time involved mastering the howler laugh, resembling an excited cackle involving a wide smile and crazy head-shake. Beyond fun and games, as a mother I had to learn to discipline the trouble-makers. Shawn, the biggest offender, was the largest in his troop and often picked on Maya and Max, the smaller ones. He was often caught trying to steal food or milk from the little ones, or sometimes he would play with them just a little too rough. I had the responsibility of stepping in and performing the howler ‘discipline’ noise: a loud and menacing “CAH CAH” to break up the spat and almost always was received with an apologetic look from Shawn and a lonely sulk in the corner.
When I came back to Wildtracks a year later (this past summer), the two troops I had overlooked in the nursery had moved onto their outdoor enclosure. Puck and Jade had been integrated with Clifford and Roxie, creating a troop of four. I was lucky enough to continue caring for the monkeys I fell in love with last year, along with Clifford and Roxie, as well as looking after Alfie, the newest addition to Wildtracks. Alfie was 5 months when I met him and still in his quarantine stage when I arrived.
Alfie was rescued from the illegal pet trade. He was very lethargic when I met him, and was not eating or drinking his milk very often. Along with two other caregivers, I spent everyday with Alfie, half play time and half walking him around the Wildtracks property. Many purrs and laughs later, Alfie became comfortable and content with his lavish Wildtracks life and became a very hyper boy who only stopped his playing when it was milk time. Seeing him transform into a fun (and milk) loving monkey was one of the most rewarding parts of this program. I loved watching him find his smile.
I’m so incredibly thankful to have been able to be a part of this incredible program over the past summers, and look forward to going back next summer. Shawn and Clifford’s troops will move to their pre-release enclosures this winter, and are expected to go to Fireburn next summer. It’s amazing that I can be a part of each stage of their rehabilitation process, and see them grow into the wild howler monkeys that they are.