written by Amy Scott, a volunteer field assistant on the project
Two months ago I was amazed at the monkeys’ ability to spot a camouflaged cascabel (rattlesnake) hidden among spiny bromeliad plants, and now I was following a four-month-old baby as he meandered helplessly through a similar patch of bromeliads. I worried that I was the only individual concerned with his fate—there could be a hungry cascabelready to attack under any of these plants. But then out of the corner of my eye I spied another individual watching him. It was Monster watching him; she is just one of three amazing monkeys in this story.
Five years previously, when Monster was only 17 months old, her mom, Cookie, died leaving her with no sisters. At 17 months, most capuchins are still being nursed and carried by mom on occasion and need a mom to protect them from dangerous situations. Mother and sisters are pivotal in the lives of female capuchins because related capuchin females remain in the same family group for life, providing each other invaluable social support. When her mother died, Monster lost not only her caregiver, but also her social network and as a result was severely picked on by other females in the group.
In the July of 2011, Monster was pregnant for the first time, but somehow lost either the baby or the pregnancy right around the time she was expected to give birth. At the time many other females in the group gave birth, including Vandal, Monster’s grandmother. Vandal was a popular female and gave birth to healthy baby boy, Peeves. Meanwhile, Monster remained a social outcast and spent most of her time on the periphery of the group. But that changed one fateful day in November when Vandal disappeared. On the November morning that Vandal was gone, her young baby, Peeves, had a wound on the back of his neck. This led us to speculate that Vandal had died at the hands of either a predator or a poacher. Either way, Vandal was gone, and poor Peeves was left without a mom. All his other age-mates were still being carried by their mothers, but Peeves was left to fend for himself. And that is how I found him wandering alone in the bromeliad patch with Monster watching him.
Over the next few days, Monster filled the role of surrogate mother for Peeves, carrying him and allowing him to nurse. Even though Monster was probably not producing milk, Peeves still received the emotional benefits from the mere act of nursing. We all felt better about Peeves’ chances of surviving without a mother at such a young age because his niece Monster was taking care of him.
Fast-forward about two weeks and we are back with these monkeys after spending time with other monkey groups, only now to our surprise, we find Vandal has rejoined the group! She does not look good though: her left check bone is exposed, and her left eye is swollen shut. Based on her wounds and the wound on the back of Peeves’ neck, we speculate that they survived a raptor attack. This is the first time a female has ever resurfaced after disappearing for many days. However males have been known to exhibit similar behavior, disappearing for a few days or weeks to lick their wounds after a big fight. Vandal is very slow due to her injuries and remains aloof, but she checks in on Peeves. As time passes she heals, regains strengths and resumes her role as Peeves’ mother. It is as if she never left and Monster goes back to spending most of her time on the periphery of the group.
As I think about these three animals, I cannot decide whose story is more amazing—the resilience of baby Peeves, Vandal’s near death recovery, or Monster’s care for her young uncle. I am tempted to imagine that Monster was filled with compassion when she saw poor little orphaned Peeves and, remembering what it felt like when she lost her mother, she was compelled by empathy to care for Peeves. However I know that I am just humanizing the story and trying to make a heart-warming story out of these events. Perhaps she was interested in Peeves because of the hormones circulating through her body as her body prepared her for pregnancy and motherhood. Or perhaps she still had plenty of ‘mommy-hormones’ left over from her recent failed pregnancy. Or Monster could have been making a power move, hoping to gain the good graces of Vandal’s higher-ranking family. No matter the explanation though, she is the reason that Peeves survived. Today all three monkeys are doing well and Monster recently gave birth to her first baby, Frankenstein, and now like every new mother, she and her baby are being showered with lots of attention.