Friday, October 23, 2009


Elba Munoz used to have a lot of money. Now, she just has a lot of monkeys: 154 of them, to be exact.

They all live in her backyard and on a plot of nearby land she bought to set up the only privately owned primate rescue and rehabilitation center of this size in the region.

It all began when a boy knocked on her door with a wooly monkey sitting on his shoulder. It belonged to his parents’ pet shop, and he was going door to door trying to sell it. It was 1994 and Elba, a midwife, lived in a comfortable home with a large, lush, tree-laden backyard in the quiet rural town of Penaflor, half an hour away from the capital.

Elba had always liked monkeys, and she and her husband, Carlos Almazan, a doctor, decided to buy the 8-month-old primate named Cristobal. Soon after, they decided to take him for his first check-up. That’s when they realized no one in Chile knew anything about monkeys, because Chile has no native colonies of its own. They took him to vets, clinics for exotic animals and even the national zoo. But all they got were perplexed looks.

They then went to the government's Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) and asked why it was allowing monkeys to enter the country if no one knew how to care for them. And that’s when they found out that Cristobal and all other monkeys being sold through the yellow pages, the internet and in pet stores were illegal, trafficked animals.

“We started this center for love of Cristobal. I had never seen an animal as evolved as this monkey. He expressed emotions — you could tell if he was embarassed, angry or expressing love. I saw how he suffered, and it immediately awoke my maternal instinct. We started learning how monkeys were being mistreated, that they were completely abandoned, and no one was enforcing the law. It was a huge irresponsibility to let these animals into the country just to have them suffer,” said Elba.

This realization changed their lives, their family, their home and their finances. Word of mouth got around that the Almazan-Munoz family had a monkey and a big house, and a few months later, people started bringing them the pet monkeys they no longer wanted. Some even dropped them off in front of their gate and ran.

“People would buy baby monkeys as pets because they were cute. But when these monkeys grow up, they stop being so cute, their hormones act up, they develop their teeth and they start acting like what they are: monkeys. They start taking things, biting to get something they want, eating all the plants and flowers and destroying things. With the first bite, people start looking for ways to get rid of them,” said Elba.

For the first three years, her family took in seven monkeys, all given up by families. During that time, Elba and Carlos learned about endangered species treaties, animal trafficking and most importantly, about monkeys. They traveled to the Amazon, Peru, Brazil and Guatemala. They met with directors of animal rescue centers and sanctuaries to learn what monkeys ate, how they moved about, the space they needed, how they jumped, what their sounds meant and what fruits they liked.

SAG also began sending the family the monkeys it was confiscating from traffickers and circuses. In 1998, it sent them 22. A year later, another 30, and the year after that, 11. Throughout the following years, SAG took dozens of monkeys to the Almazan-Munoz home, while people continued to hand over their pet monkeys.

Three cappucino monkeys joined the center in 2000, after a television program used a hidden camera to film the cruel experiments being practiced on them at the University of Chile’s neuroscience laboratory. The public exposure prompted the lab to hand over Darwin, Aristoteles and Socrates to the center.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Monkey Helpers

Inside his Phelps Street living room, Jim Mosso tries to reason with an uncooperative 20-year-old.

When he asks her to pick up a dropped remote, she appears to ignore him. She also stays put on the couch when he asks her to fetch water from the refrigerator. But unexpectedly, she breaks into a heart-melting smile and plants a kiss on top of Mosso's head.

The 20-year-old, named Gizzy, is a Capuchin monkey, an animal noted for its intelligence and helpful spirit. Mosso's job is to get her ready for a higher calling: helping people with disabilities handle everyday tasks.

Mosso is a volunteer foster parent with the Boston-based nonprofit Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled. For the past five years, he has been feeding and diapering Gizzy, taking her to the veterinarian, and teaching her to fetch water, make popcorn, pick up dropped items and do other helpful things around the house.

Like raising a child, the job has its rewards and frustrations, but Mosso is committed to the cause.

"When I heard about Helping Hands, I instantly knew I wanted to help train one of these guys," said Mosso as Gizzy snuggled in his lap. "I checked into it and I was amazed at what these monkeys were doing for people who are disabled."

Helping Hands' mission has been to provide assistance to people with the greatest needs: people who have become quadriplegic (paralyzed from the neck down) as a result of an accident, injury, or disease. The organization also sponsors events that teach others how to prevent spinal cord injuries.

Mosso said well-trained Capuchin monkeys can replace armrests that fall from wheelchairs, scratch an itch on a quadriplegic's face, re-position eyeglasses that slip out of place, and turn the pages of a book.

And for those often confined to their homes, the monkeys provide something more.

"I remember hearing a story about a gentleman who got in a car crash, and he became paralyzed and depressed," Mosso said. "Having a monkey changed his life. The monkey not only provided a service, but also companionship. When it's nighttime and you are tired, you can't imagine how good it feels to just relax on the couch and have a little monkey curl up and go to sleep in your lap."

That being said, "the work these monkeys require is not for everybody," said Mosso. "It takes a lot of time and patience. With a dog, you can go out for four or five hours, but monkeys need constant care. They eat three times a day, and have regular snacks."

Gizzy was born 20 years ago at Southwick Zoo in Mendon, which breeds the Capuchins used by the Helping Hands organization. After she was weaned, Gizzy spent time in another home until Mosso adopted her five years ago.

That training process has been challenging, Mosso notes, since monkeys can live more than 40 years but never stop acting like 2-year-olds. Even his dog Missy and cat April know to stay out of the way when Gizzy is out of her cage.

"She likes to play with them and chase them around," he said, "and sometimes they don't like to be chased."

Like training any pet, positive reinforcement is the key to training monkeys. When Gizzy decides to pick up the remote to impress a few guests, Mosso's reaction is instantaneous.

"Good girl," he says, beaming and handing Gizzy a peanut. Successfully opening the refrigerator wins Gizzy a plastic margarine tub holding a smear of peanut butter.

"Rewarding them is key," he said. "They will remember 'the last time I did this, I got a reward."'

Eventually, Mosso adds, the reward can be withheld and the monkey will still perform.

Right now Gizzy can fetch water, put a straw into the bottle, retrieve the remote, and make microwave popcorn. She even knows to wait until the package cools off before taking it out of the microwave. She also knows how to give herself a bath; Mosso fills his tub a quarter full with warm water and lets Gizzy clean herself with baby shampoo.

Like a child, Gizzy is protected from things that might hurt her. Mosso said he'd never ask her to fetch a beer, because she might be tempted to drink it. He also has her handle only plastic spoons; no sharp metal or knives.

Some day Gizzy will leave Mosso's care, undergo more training in Boston, and be a companion to someone who needs her help.

"I'm unsure how long I will have her," he says, as Gizzy picks imaginary bugs off his head - an inborn trait that even monkeys born in captivity keep. "They could come to me in two weeks and tell me she has to go to Boston. I know it will be sad, but when we sign on with Helping Hands we know that the day will come, with very short notice, when the monkey will have to move on."

In the meantime, Mosso says, "you could say she's like my daughter."

Mosso is planning a fundraiser for the Helping Hands organization tomorrow from 6 to 11 p.m., in Marlborough at the Moose Lodge, 67 Fitchburg St. The event will include food, a deejay, silent auction and a presentation on the benefits that the Helping Hands monkeys bring their adoptive owners. Tickets, available at the door, are $10 each; children under 6 are free.


Sunday, October 11, 2009


When Awang started to shriek, it was fortunate that a family of seven paid attention - the pet macaque was warning them about a lethal intruder.

In the 3pm incident on Sunday, a cobra slithered towards the house in Kampung Bukit Teriak, about 25km from here.

Munirah Mustaffa, 42, and her six children, aged between four and 20, were about to leave their house at that time.

"When we heard Awang making noises, we assumed some wild monkeys had disturbed him. One of my sons, Mohd Sidqi Mat Isa, 11, volunteered to chase them away and he went out.

"It was then that he saw the cobra slithering towards the house," she said, adding that he tried to run back into the house.

"I saw the snake approaching and quickly slammed the door shut," said Munirah.

"To my horror, I realised my son was still outside," she said at her home yesterday.

She said she heard her son shouting, and through the window saw Mohd Sidqi running helter-skelter to escape the snake.

"He managed to escape as the reptile had changed its focus on the family cat," said Munirah. "Fortunately, the cat also managed to run away."

She alerted her husband who was working in Sik at the time. He contacted the Civil Defence Department.

Munirah said the snake, which was hiding in some bushes, was caught some four hours later.