A Life Behind Bars for 'Pet' Monkeys
by Scotch Macaskill
Juvenile Samango monkey - already too "humanized" for release
Monkeys behind bars evoke mixed feelings.
On one level it's
fascinating - and often amusing - watching primate behavior from close
Yet it's also distressing, making one sad
that these animals will never experience life outside a cage.
Although they're safe and well fed, they'll never breed or benefit from
the social hierarchy that binds troops of monkeys in the wild.
I was certainly struck by this mix of emotions during a visit to
Ishona Langa, a wildlife sanctuary near Pietermaritzburg, my home
town in KwaZulu-Natal province.
Ishona Langa ("the place where the sun sets") is owned and
managed by Victor Hugo, an accomplished wildlife film-maker who is
passionate about wild animals.
While antelope, zebra, and giraffe wander free across the
acacia thornveld that covers the 360-acre sanctuary, it's the handful
of captive monkeys that bring both pain and joy to the owner.
The monkeys - seven samangos and a couple of vervets - have all been "adopted" over the years by Victor
after being abandoned as pets.
"People think they can tame these wild creatures because they're
so cute when they're babies - but they inevitably bite someone and
then become a problem," Victor explains.
Because monkeys appear "cute", people treat them like toys. But
they're not cuddly playthings that can be picked up and handled at
the whim of the owner. Eventually the day comes when the monkey
feels threatened by this and bites someone - behaving exactly as it would
in the wild.
Samango monkey grooming owner of the sanctuary, Victor Hugo
Monkeys Given Free Will
In contrast, Victor allows the monkeys to exercise free will and
doesn't force his presence on them.
To illustrate this, he enters
the cage of a samango monkey and, ignoring it, sits some way off.
He explains that if the monkey wants affection, it will approach
In this case the monkey clearly does want to socialize - it
climbs happily over him until, perched on his shoulder, it
diligently starts "grooming" his substantial head of hair.
Although Victor would dearly love to return the monkeys at
Ishona Langa to the wild, it's already too late: "Every day a
monkey spends in captivity makes a difference and once they've
become too humanized, they become non-releasable".
Even four young samango monkeys he initially hoped could be
"dehumanized", are now too habituated to people to survive in the
For Victor it's a no-win situation. He doesn't want to keep the
monkeys caged, but knows that if released, they won't survive.
Either they'll be easy prey for predators or, a greater danger,
will inevitably clash with people.
Because a monkey raised in captivity has lost its fear of
humans, it will eventually enter someone's home, resulting in
confrontation and a demand that the monkey be destroyed.
As a result, Victor says, no nature reserves or game parks want
these monkeys released in their areas. "There's nowhere to let them
go free, so we do the best we can, giving them food and
He's now under pressure from other groups to establish a primate
sanctuary on his property. But, as he points out, this requires
substantial funding and, in the longer term, a place where the
animals can be set free.
Instead Victor uses Ishona Langa mainly as an educational and
conference center, believing the ethos of the sanctuary will "plant
a seed in everybody who visits and that they will leave having
With younger visitors, he uses clever reverse psychology, first
allowing them to "ooh" and "aah" over the monkeys before explaining
the harsh reality - that these animals are now confined to cages
forever because they were initially tamed or kept as pets.
The lesson learnt is not to feed or keep monkeys in captivity -
leave them wild as they're meant to be. It's something the kids
seem to understand and appreciate.
More About Samango Monkeys
The Samango monkey (Cercopithecus mitis) is a small animal (males weigh 9.3kg, females 4.9kg) that occurs
in forest habitat in the eastern parts of Southern Africa.
Samangos live in troops of 12 to 20 (but up to 30) usually comprising an adult male,
six to eight females and an assortment of juveniles. They sleep at night in trees, foraging in short bursts during the day.
They feed on a variety of wild fruits, leaves, flowers, and will also eat insects.
Visit the Ishona Langa Wildlife Sanctuary web site or
return to Wildlife Info.
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