Friday, April 13, 2007

Another Incident by the Mango Tree

Yesterday I found the monkeys right away along the Camino, in an area where both the North and South groups often forage. Once I sighted a familiar male I call Medio, I realized I was with the North group. The monkeys decided to spread themselves out quite a bit, and Medio's little subgroup traveled to one of their favorite locations: The Mango Tree. Aha, I thought. It is going to be a textbook day: eat unripe mangos, sleep, repeat.

This is precisely what they did for a while. Now before I go on, I've got to point out a few things. First, the Mango Tree is on the Gringo Property and is very close to where they are building their house. A crew of local guys comes in every morning to work on the house. From the Mango Tree I can plainly hear hammering, sawing, music playing, human conversations, and dogs barking. The other thing to point out is that the Mango Tree is where I found a dead howler 6 weeks ago-- a mystery that remains unsolved. If the monkeys have any lingering unpleasant memories of this incident, they have pushed them aside in favor of the apparently tasty unripe mangos. Both groups feed at this location, sometimes even at the same time, so it is often hard for me to tell who is who.

At any rate, after Medio's subgroup fed and rested for a couple of hours, I began to hear some scuffling a bit interior, even closer to the construction site. An infant was screeching over there, and the monkeys I was watching in the mango tree became quite agitated: running back and forth, howling, hooting, etc. Then dogs began barking, and there was quite a ruckus of howling and yowling for about 10 minutes. The dogs' barking became even more frantic, and I went towards the sound to see what was going on.

When I got there I saw 2 dogs growling over the body of a female howler. I charged at them, yelling "Fuera!" in my my meanest voice, and they ran away whimpering. The howler was motionless: already dead. She was bloodied at the throat, right flank, and hindquarters. I felt like I might puke. I hated those dogs-- they had looked fat and well-fed, not the sickly skinny kind that really needed a good meal.

I dug through the dirt with my hands to make a hole so I could bury her. Moving the howler to the burial hole without touching her was quite a challenge, but the plastic bags I'd brought for leaf sample collection served as makeshift gloves. It was without a doubt the grossest thing I've ever done. The temperature must have been close to a hundred degrees, and burning sweat was dripping into my eyes. I was covered in dirt that soon mixed with my sweat to become a mud-sheen.

As I covered the dead howler with dirt, I happened to glance up and saw an infant in the tree right above me. It must have been the infant I'd heard shrieking earlier. The poor little guy. This was a grim situation for sure. I wasn't certain of the age, but I suspected that it was one of the 2 December infants, so at most it was 4 months old. By this age, howlers are consuming some solid foods, but they derive the vast majority of their mutritional requirements from their mother's milk. In terms of locomotion, they frequently leave their mother to play and explore, but they almost always ride on her back when traveling within or between tree crowns. This little guy was at least 6 to 8 months too young to be able to survive without its mother. I didn't even want to think about what was going to happen.

I stayed and watched the infant. It kept giving alarm calls and retrieval calls (the sound infants make when they've gotten too far away from their mom and need her to come get them). Every time the infant called, the rest of the subgroup-- some 20-30m away in the Mango tree-- hooted anxiously. The infant somehow got itself into a huge Guanacaste tree. I surveyed the surroundings and realized that even if it had wanted to travel back to the others, it could not. There were too many gaps in the canopy that were just too wide for it to cross by itself.

After about three hours of crying, the infant seemed pretty worn out. It got quiet and just hung limply from a branch; its eyes were half closed and its mouth was half opened. This was not a good sign. Finally at 12:15, it fell off the branch and dropped to the ground with a very loud thud. I ran over to the infant; it was lying motionless but it was breathing and its eyes were opened. I tried to give it some water from my bottle, but it wouldn’t take any. Instinct kicked in and I scooped up the baby in my hat and began to race down the volcano. I talked to it constantly, making all sorts of wild promises. I told it to hang on and I would make sure that it had a lovely life.

When I got to the Hacienda, everyone was surprised to see me home in the middle of the day and when they saw that I was cradling a baby howler monkey in my arms, they were even more surprised. I relayed the story best that I could and told them to get me some milk. There are about a million cows on this island but nobody ever has fresh milk; they always use powdered. Doña Argentina went to the kitchen to stir up some powdered milk, and Daraysi momentarily disappeared only to return moments later with a baby bottle. When the milk was ready, I began to try to feed the baby—who I had since discovered was a male. He couldn’t really swallow and most of the milk just dribbled down his face. Whenever he got a little bit in him, he would kind of gasp and perk up and look at me but then he would sort of pass out again. Rob sat next to me and helped with the feeding. We discovered that the baby seemed to do better at taking water rather than milk, so we gave him a little bit of that just to try to get him hydrated again. We kept at it and finally got him revived. He was able to move around a bit, and his hands and feet—which had felt cold—started to feel a little bit warmer. He had himself a little accident (which got all over my hat), so we bathed him and got him all nice and clean. Afterwards, he clung to my shirt like he would have clung to his mother’s belly and fell asleep again.

It was really beginning to seem like he was going to make it. I was ecstatic but overwhelmed—now what was I going to do with a baby howler monkey?? I couldn’t have just left him on the forest floor to die, but now I didn’t know what to do with him. Even if he was strong enough, I wouldn’t be able to just release him back into the group. At his young age, he was still entirely dependent on his mother. Unless another female abandoned her own offspring and adopted him (not likely) he didn’t stand a chance. It was beginning to look like I was about to become this infant’s new mother.

The kitchen staff was all intently interested in the baby monkey, especially Alejandra. She held him and said that she would help be his mother. I thought, maybe this will work if we all take turns caring for the infant until we figure out what to do with him. Whenever the infant was awake, he was trying to climb and crawl around. He bit Alejandra on the thumb, and although I was horrified, she didn’t think it was any big deal. Daryasi was overcome by the baby monkey’s cuteness. While he was crawling around, she reached to pick him up and he bit her too. She shrieked, running away crying out, “Ay, el hijo de Melissa me mordió!” It was actually kind of funny. Getting bitten didn’t seem to deter Daraysi; in about 2 minutes she was back to hold him again, cooing, “Monito, bonito, congito, chicito, pobrecito…” I was pretty freaked out by the idea of getting bitten by a monkey, so I made sure to keep those little teeth away from me.

At any rate, I was pre-occupied with the infant all afternoon and evening yesterday. I emailed Martin, and he replied right away with suggestions and the name of a medicine we should give the monkey. At night Alejandra slept with the monkey in her arms; I didn’t see him again before I went out to the forest at 5 o’clock this morning. Although I wanted to stay in with the infant, I thought I should go back out and try to make sense of what was going on in the forest. When I got there, I found that something had scavenged the burial site, so all my digging in the hard-packed dirt with my bare hands had been for naught.

Meanwhile, Rob got up at 6am and rode his bike 18 kilometers to Altagracia, to the nearest pharmacy. He bought the medicine Martin said we needed to give the monkey and was back by 8:30. So I guess I wasn’t the only one who got attached to the baby yesterday.

Unfortunately, when I got home from the forest tonight, I found out the baby monkey had died. It happened just shortly after Rob returned from Altagracia with the medicine. Alejandra said that the baby had just clung to her all night and didn’t make any sound or movement. He took a little bit of water, but when she tried to give him milk, he wouldn’t swallow it and it just dribbled down his face. Before Rob could even give him any of the medicine he’d bought, the monkey was gone. I think back to the fall from the tree and remember how far the little guy fell and how hard he landed on the ground. Maybe he had internal injuries or something and couldn’t quite recover.

I have to admit, I am having a difficult time with this for many reasons. I am trying to tell myself that so many of us tried as hard as we could… but still. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Human actions in the forest are having—albiet unintentional—devastating effects on the monkeys. In the past 6 weeks, at least 3 monkeys have been killed either directly or indirectly by dogs that humans brought into the forest. At this rate, I wonder how many of my monkeys will be left by the end of this project. The monkeys are only vulnerable to dogs if they come to the ground, but I’ve noticed monkeys on the ground more and more often at this time of year. In the height of the dry season, many of the branches are brittle and dried out—so many times a branch will snap as a monkey is traveling across it, and the monkey falls to the ground or close to it. Terrestrial dangers are even more of a concern in heavily degraded areas, such as the one where the deaths occurred. In these scrappy, deforested patches, there are extensive gaps between the tree crowns and sometimes the monkeys have to come to the ground when the gap is too wide for them to jump. With dogs coming into the forest more frequently, this spells disaster for the monkeys.

I wish that this post had a happy ending, but I guess it just wasn’t to be. One thing to be happy about is that Wrinkle Belly is still alive and well. I’m just hoping that the monkeys stay up high in the trees and far away from the dogs from now on. Thanks for reading.


At 7:29 AM, April 14, 2007, Blogger Amy, Ben, and Bryn said...

I just got all weepy while reading this and then ran to scoop up Bryn and promise that I will protect her from all dangers. Then I yelled at our dogs and told them (confused as they were) that it was their kind that caused this. I am absolutely horrified by this story and would like to give those dog-owning gringos a piece of my mind. I hope you're doing okay.... I know that I would likely not be after witnessing this.

At 12:02 PM, April 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The important thing is that you all worked together and did everything possible to try to save the little guy. I'm very touched by that. But the sad fact remains that without their mothers, babies in the wild are doomed. It's just so hard to witness it.

My condolences

At 12:49 PM, April 14, 2007, Blogger foxymomma said...

I read your story and even though I knew the outcome, I still cried!!!!!!! You and Rob tried sooo hard to help the little guy- your grampa george would be so proud of you and all you tried to do!!!!!!! Just remember 'you did the best you could'!!!!!!!!! The photos were sooooo cute, and he was soooo tiny!!!!!!! You did save him from the MEAN BAD dogs . The poor monkeys are having 'their GREEN space taken away, too. and that is soooo sad,... Hang in there, and take care, luv you

At 1:54 PM, April 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a very sad story! Bruce was saying that usually when any animal is injured badly, like this baby obviously was, he will bite someone that gets too close to him just to protect himself. He was obviously hurting very badly on the inside and we are thankful that you all were able to step in and take over for his momma. "Team Ragfield & friends" came through for the litte fellow and made his last day as comfortable as possible.

At 11:29 AM, April 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OH MY GOSH! I just finally got time to read your blog today. When you were telling about picking up this baby monkey, I have to admit, I thought how could she do that????? But, now that i see the little guy, I understand completely why you had to try to save him. I'm so sorry it didn't work out, but you gave it a few hours of help that he wouldn't have gotten laying on the ground. Your experience just keeps surprising me more and more. I keep telling all my friends about my 'best friends" daughter and what she is doing. A little girl from Dunlap!!!!! Its wondeful and I am sure so rewarding,(Most of the time).

At 6:39 PM, April 18, 2007, Blogger Cara Knox said...

People suck! It's good you get to practice your auntie skills, even if things didn't pan out for dog scratch can be pretty rough! We'll be thinking about you!


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