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A Visit To The Texas Snow Monkey Sanctuary

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In mid-2000, my friend and renowned animal rights activist Don Barnes made me an offer I couldn't refuse. At the time, Don was the Animal Protection Institute's Southern Field Representative, and API had recently taken over the Texas Snow Monkey Sanctuary. Knowing my animal rescue background and love for all things wild, Don invited me to volunteer for a day.

I mentioned the offer in passing to some neighbors, a couple, who talked me into taking them along. They'd grown up on farms and were eager to spend a day in the country and meet the animals. One cloudy day in June, the three of us set out for Dilley, Texas.

As we approached the Sanctuary gate, shapes began filling the dirt road behind it. They soon revealed themselves to be dogs... about 35 of them! The pack trotted along behind us for the half mile or so to the sanctuary's tiny main building. We were inundated with affection as we got out of the car.

Don and friend
Don & friend
The Sanctuary provides a healing place for both primates and non-primates when they can. Many of the dogs had obvious disabilities, such as missing legs, but looked overjoyed to have found a pack and and trustworthy, loving humans.

We began our duties cleaning baboon cages in the pouring rain. After you've decided that you're going to get wet, it's not so bad. In fact, it's strangely exhilarating. Of course, the smell was overpowering, even in the rain.

This was a group of ten baboons. Nine were the Sanctuary's first shipment of research lab retirees and all were male. Then tenth, a female, was rescued when her biker owner was sent to prison.

One of the males was blind and particularly terrified by the rain. He and the other males had lived in tiny, windowless rooms for the past decade. None of them had ever met another baboon. They were now in separate, but attached cages while they learned to cope with being outside and near eachother.

Two of the males, Moe and Shaq, were battling through the bars to decide who would be the alpha male and who would be the beta. Despite the net-like cages, Shaq got a chunk taken out of his face, and Moe had an already badly injured finger ripped off and left hanging by a shred. Nikki, the female, made it clear that Moe had stolen her heart and was absolutely beside herself worrying about him.

Lou Griffin, the primatologist who cares for the hundreds of animals, often by herself, said she'd tranquilize Moe with a dart gun later and try sewing the finger back on. She had other more pressing things to do in the interim. In the wild, apparently, broken and missing fingers among male baboons are quite common. The rain had finally subsided, so we wandered about while Lou got the truck ready.

We met a number of abused animals that the Sanctuary had rescued. I was amazed by how much love and attention these animals wanted from us, when humans had done such terrible things to them. One was a very malnourished horse left to die by her owner. I later learned that she died shortly after my visit, too weak to come back from the brink. At least she was surrounded by love in her final days.

We moved on to a five acre snow monkey enclosure, the smaller of two. Some monkeys were still in cages. They'd been pets or were otherwise domesticated. They were now observing the rest of the "troop" to learn how to be monkeys prior to their release.

There were also vervet monkeys who'd been retired from research labs and a number of feral cats. We were instructed not to get near the cats. The monkeys consider them friends and will attack if they perceive a threat.

This troop had been traumatized. A few drunken locals, influenced by the movie 'Outbreak', had broken in one night. Male snow monkeys approach strangers in advance of the rest of the family unit as a protective measure. The intruders started shooting with deer rifles at point blank range. Only one male monkey survived.

A number of the female snow monkeys had babies, which was a heartening sight. They were learning to trust humans again. After tossing out goodies and gaping at the huge ants, we climbed into the back of Lou's truck. Minutes later we were bouncing along the rutted dirt road that led to a 65 acre enclosure, where 320 or so snow monkeys range freely.

Lou was trying to dart (anesthetize) males to cage them until their "cutter" arrived in a couple of days to do vasectomies. Due to a lack of funds and staff, the Sanctuary is trying to reach zero population growth. At first, we tried baiting a cage that the monkeys hadn't seen before with caramel candies. Unfortunately, the already vasectomized "king" (which is what primatologists call the alpha male) fiercely guarded the treats so that no-one else could reach them.

Snow monkeys love caramel candies. They put them, plastic and all, into their mouths and chew until all the caramel is squeezed from the wrapper. Then they spit the wrapper out. I guess it makes sense, since they eat peanuts and bananas in a similar fashion.

One of the females waited until no-one was guarding the bag with the remaining caramels, then made off with it. Half a dozen other monkeys gave chase while she frantically stuffed caramels into her cheek pouches. She was eventually forced to give up the bag to avoid attack. Once the others had left, however, she attempted to eat all of the candies in her mouth at once, making for one of the funniest scenes I've ever witnessed.

Lou finally snuck up on a male and darted him, but the male ran off. It takes about three minutes for the drug to work, and a monkey can cover a lot of ground in that time. One of my guests ran after him, in shorts, through a mile or so of prickly pear cactus. He was thrilled by the whole adventure, since it reminded him of chasing down bulls on the farm. Unfortunately, the monkey fought the drug and eventually lost him.

Our time window was closing. Even if our target finally lost conciousness, he was going to wake up with a nasty hangover at any moment. It was time to give up. We reparked elsewhere while Lou took care of some other chores.

I'd been sitting in the back of the pickup, or jogging behind it. Someone took my place, so I moved to the passenger's seat. The window had been rolled down, but I didn't notice. Then the "king" jumped up on the hood.

His face was redder than that of the other monkeys and he had a permanently pissed off expression. First, he pressed himself against the windshield, presumably to see if there were any more caramels hiding inside. Then he realized that my window was down. It's quite a challenge to move slowly enough to avoid provoking attack, but quickly enough to keep the king off your lap. Thankfully, I got the window up in the nick of time.

A little later, I got out of the truck again. A female with a baby ran behind my legs. Apparently, the males were busy proving how tough they were, and the female felt safer looking at the back of my jeans. I tried to keep my movements reassuringly slow and she eventually moved on.

I must say, there were an awful lot of babies out there. The snow monkeys have adjusted to Texas with a vengeance! Their fur is shorter and lighter, their faces redder and their size larger than the snow monkeys in Japan, their home of origin. They have become true Texans!

As we drove back to the gate, the dogs heard us and began barking. Lou asked us stay on the lookout for a particularly mischievous monkey who delights in taunting the dogs until they jump up on the electric fence. Fortunately, the dogs had learned their lesson, and weren't falling for it.

Back at the main building, we said our good-byes and headed out to the car. The dogs ran behind us all the way to the front gate. I was filthy and exhausted, but for my guests and I, it had been worth every minute.

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