Donald hooted loudly at me, waved his arms, and proceeded to noisily toss barrels around the room.
“What’s he saying?” I whispered, awed.
“He’s letting you know he’s the one in control here,” April Truitt said matter-of-factly. “In fact, the way he sees it, you’re here watching him only at his pleasure.”
I could accept that. The large room on the other side of the bulletproof glass was, after all, his territory. And as the alpha male chimpanzee, those he lived with were his family, to be defended if necessary.
But Donald soon realized I was no threat, and curiosity got the best of him. He came to the glass and looked right at me, with large, unblinking eyes. He put his hand up flat against the glass; on the other side, I placed my hand against his.
Donald is a 31-year-old chimp living at the Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville. Run by April Truitt, the Center is home to 61 monkeys, apes, and chimpanzees, 16 species in all. Some have been rescued from, or given up by, private owners; some come from experimental research laboratories. While now living happier lives on 30 beautiful acres surrounded by woods and streams, all have a sad tale to tell.
While animal testing has been a source of controversy for many years, even more troubling is the growing exotic animal industry: stories of exotic animals as pets are becoming more and more commonplace. More often than not, these exotic pets may be dangerous, such as lions and tigers, or are not cared for properly, such as monkeys and chimps.
There’s no question that a baby chimp is downright adorable. But the fact is, few people are educated and equipped to satisfy the needs of a primate, either physical or emotional.
“Many people who get a baby monkey or chimp,” April sighs, “are ignorant, in the purest sense of the word, of the specialized care a primate needs. They simply do not make good pets. They may be cute and cuddly at first, but they’re going to grow into large, aggressive, frustrated animals.”
Nor do buyers of primates understand what the animals have been subjected to even before they are purchased. A baby may be taken away from its mother when just hours old: not only will the owners not know how to care for them, these babies have lost the nurturing and socializing they would have learned under normal circumstances. To make matters worse, when a primate becomes unruly and hard to handle, the buyer may actually trade it in for another baby; this vicious cycle only encourages the continued breeding of primates as pets.
A congenial woman, April nonetheless becomes angry when talking about the growing number of primates in this country.
“Between the breeding of primates for research, zoo surplus, and private breeders, there’s a critical mass of primates that sanctuaries can take in, and we’re reaching it.” The irony is that many primate species in the wild are endangered, while sanctuaries are bursting at the seams; for this reason, there is no breeding at the Primate Rescue Center.
Just then, a loud ruckus breaks out in the chimp area. Zulu is trying to cause trouble with another chimp, and Donald comes out to mediate. It’s a bit intimidating to watch, and the noise is deafening, but eventually the problem is sorted out and everybody is happy again.
“Now, that’s what I like to see,” April says with satisfaction. “Chimps being chimps. Nothing else.”
Which is why the primates here are not treated as pets, even if they had been so previously. I asked if perhaps those who had been pets missed the attention and coddling.
“No, they don’t,” April says with an indulgent smile. “They don’t want it, they don’t need it. The other primates are their family now.”
The Primate Rescue Center grew out of a personal experience by April. April’s husband, Clay, bought a macaque monkey for her as a present in 1987.
“I was horrified,” April laughs, but she educated herself on how best to care for the young primate she named Gizmo. She learned that another monkey would be good company for Gizmo, and soon acquired one. At the same time, she learned of the plight of primates throughout the country, and took in some monkeys who were no longer wanted by their owners. When research labs started calling her to take in primates they wanted to retire, April could find no way to refuse, and the Center was begun.
Sadly, April found that former pets as well as laboratory primates had equally serious problems.
“In a way, the lab monkeys are usually healthieryou can’t do research on a sick monkeybut mentally they’re scrambled eggs. The pets come in either obese or terribly thin, and have serious dental problems.”
Dewey, a rhesus monkey, is a case in point. Dewey spent 20 years in a research lab. He was kept strapped in a jacket, attached to a catheter. He never saw the sun. Dewey came to the Center with physical and mental scars, and very little hair because of stress. Due to his inability to socialize with other primates, he initially had to live alone.
But today Dewey is hardly the same animal. His hair is coming back in, he now has three roommates, he gets lots of fresh air and sunshine, and appears to be quite comfortable in his surroundings.
One reason for that may be that he now has only limited contact with humans. The Center is closed to the public, except for a once-yearly Open House to demonstrate the benefits of the Center.
“We’re very careful about subjecting the monkeys and chimps to stresses like visitors,” April says. “Some contact with humans can be enriching for them, but we don’t overdo it.”
The primates are handled as little as possible, both for safety and the well-being of the monkeys and chimps. They have been taught to present front, back, and side views of their bodies for physical inspections, and to allow injections to be given when needed. Food is passed through a tray for the primates to retrieve, and is plentiful: Monkey Chow, noodles, cereals, macaroni, peanut butter, Jell-O, pudding, and honey; fresh fruits and vegetables make up 60% of their diet.
Visiting the Centerwhose Open House this year is May 22was a joy. As I walked the well-kept grounds, all the primates came running to see who was visiting. Except for one small monkey, that is, who pulled a blanket over his head as I approached, only to lift it back up and peek out at me.
All the primates live in spacious indoor/outdoor enclosures, and are made to stay inside only in extreme weather. Indeed, the chimpanzee house looks like a suburban residence. Seeing their bright, intelligent eyes, there are few signs of their previous sad lives.
It’s not exactly an easy job for April and the Center’s volunteers. They must meet the physical and emotional needs of spider monkeys, macaques, capuchins, mona guenons, colobus monkeys, chimpanzees, and others. And with monthly expenses exceeding $10,000 at this non-profit organization, April gladly accepts donations and other items from the Center’s wish list.
But financial concerns go even further.
“The fact is, many of these primates will outlive me,” April states, pointing out that Gizmo, who started it all, is still alive and kicking at age 17. Thus, in addition to the day-to-day operations of the Center, she is making plans to keep the sanctuary operating into the future.
“I’ll find a way,” she says. “I’m a problem solver. That’s what got me here.”