Written by Primate Keeper Lucy Dee Anderson

In Belize it is illegal to own a pet howler monkey, and the forestry department confiscates monkeys from people to eventually be brought back into the wild. In June I had the opportunity to travel to Belize and help release two troops of howler monkeys back into a safe spot deep within the Amazon rainforest called Fireburn. (Wondering why they are not allowed as pets? Read all about why having a monkey as a pet is bad for the monkey and for you.)

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Ritchie the howler monkey. Photo by Ruth Linton.

In Belize is ‘Wildtracks’, a non-profit organization that shelters the howler monkeys and rehabilitates them. This can involve medical needs, special feedings and/or socialization with other howler monkeys. Wildtracks receives animals aged from a few months old to adulthood. Each animal is eventually put into a group with other monkeys and once they become a cohesive group, they are ready to move on to the next step. This next step is the pre-release area, which is an area of forest fenced off by electrical fencing.

At Wildtracks, they have two pre-release areas, and they had two troops of monkeys to release this year. Nicky, Sultan, Livvy, Willow and Hazel had been living with Wildtracks for a year. The other troop, Charlie, Paz, Mia, Fern and Ritchie, had been at Wildtracks for about half a year. I was able to help them with this year’s release at Fireburn, an area of protected forest that traditionally had howler monkeys in it; therefore a great place to do a release! So…picture it; a bumpy ride on the back of a truck on a dirt road, then a beautiful boat ride across a lagoon, then a tractor ride deep into the jungle, then an hour trek even deeper into the jungle – this is how you travel to Fireburn Reserve!

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Igor the howler monkey. Photo by Ruth Linton.

When we went to the reserve, there were several steps to accomplish in order to free a monkey:

1. Go to Fireburn and build release caging – this involved bringing a generator, drill, ladder and several panels of caging deep into the jungle!  This will be the monkeys’ home for a couple of days and also a home base once they are released.

2. Next we bring the monkeys to the jungle and put them in their release cages.

3. Allow the monkeys to get used to their surroundings, while feeding them fruit and  freshly cut leaves from the forest, called browse.

4. Release the monkeys!

5. Monitor the monkeys to make sure they are doing well and eating well. They will be provisioned with food for about 3 months until they start to eat on their own.

This was my second trip to Belize. I was there three years ago to meet some monkeys that were being rehabilitated and assist with the project. When we released the first troop of monkeys this year, that first group that I met three years ago came to see what was happening! It was so rewarding to be able to see the monkeys I met before being wild and free in the jungle again. One of those monkeys’ names was Eden. She had been confiscated as a baby, so small she could fit in your hands. When I first met her she was still being bottle-fed and was very wary of newcomers. It broke my heart to think that she had been taken away from her mom in the forest and was someone’s pet. When I saw her this year she was huge! As a fully grown adult at this point, she was swinging in the trees, howling and fully a part of her new troop. This gives me a good feeling that the 2 troops we released this year have a very good chance of thriving in the jungle of Belize!

Rehabilitation and release of any animal is a difficult and time consuming process. Although everything went extremely well overall, there were three monkeys that will need to wait until next year to be released. Livvy unfortunately broke her arm a day before the release and has had extensive medical care that is ongoing. Paz lost the rest of his troop and could not find them and so had to be returned to Wildtracks to try again next year, and Sultan, who was showing great movement and independence in the trees at Wildtracks, was simply not ready to be out in the wild and will also be tried again next year. Although these are setbacks, looking at the big picture, seven howler monkeys were successfully released this year!

My trip was made possible through the support of the Houston Zoo Staff Conservation Fund. The Fund is the donations of many Zoo employees, pooled together to support a select few of our staff’s proposals. It allows us to actively participate in conservation at many different levels and in places from Texas to far-flung areas like Belize. In the primate department, for the past 4 years we have raised awareness and provided funding for howler monkey conservation each October during our event called ‘Howlerween’. In addition to contributing funds, we travel to Belize and help them with whatever they need, from carpentry to assisting with medical procedures.

Thanks to this Fund and Wildtracks, I was able to contribute to conservation and have an amazing learning experience this past June!

The howler monkeys we have here at the Houston Zoo are ambassadors for the monkeys in the wild, and I hope to see all of you come to the Houston Zoo to see our amazing howler monkeys in action!

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