From new habitats and friendships to new faces, our Texas primate sanctuary continues its lifesaving work 52 feet long, 52 feet wide and 30 feet high. Olive and Saffron’s new bedroom space is 20 feet long and heated in the colder months.
Olive and Saffron arrived at Primarily Primates (PPI) in May of 2015 from a university research lab that was closing. Sadly, they were on the verge of being euthanized since they were no longer needed. These two females were introduced to the late olive baboon Karibu, who had arrived at PPI in 2008, and they formed a social group. Karibu was born in a baboon breeding facility and became a research subject. At the time of his release to PPI, he was at a laboratory in Virginia.
Olive baboons have a greenish-grey coat covering their bodies. The individual hairs are green-grey with rings of black and yellowish-brown, giving the coat a multi-color appearance. The new space allows Olive and Saffron to mimic their wild behaviors. In the wild, baboons cover more territory foraging than any other primate. These omnivorous Old World monkeys sometimes travel 12 miles a day in almost every kind of environment in Africa—from evergreen forest to grassland—foraging for food.
When fruit is not available, they settle for grass and seeds. They dig for roots and tubers, overturn stones to find insects and catch lizards and occasionally even hares and newborn gazelles.
Another activity wild baboons spend a lot of time doing is grooming. For them it’s a soothing time that unites all members of a group. The adult females play the major role, grooming infants, as well as juveniles, adult males and one another. Their hands are well adapted for this delicate practice, which includes parting the hair and picking off burs, scabs or other matter. Olive and Saffron were particularly fond of grooming Karibu before he passed away in 2017 just two months after being diagnosed with an aggressive and untreatable form of lymphoma.
“The last year of Karibu’s life was spent cherished by these two females,” said Brooke Chavez, executive director of PPI. “He would just lay there and be groomed by both of them and they would even get in little tiffs over him. He loved every second of it. No one is more deserving of this wonderful habitat than Olive and Saffron.”
This year PPI welcomed rhesus macaque, Olivia, who arrived at just three months old. She was purchased as a pet in Texas, but when her owner relocated to Arizona, she was confiscated.
That’s because in 2015 the Arizona Fish and Game Department made it illegal to keep primates as pets. Vernon Weir from the American Sanctuary Association alerted PPI to the situation, and a judge awarded custody to the sanctuary.
Executive Director Brook Chavez then picked her up at the Wildlife Conservation Center in Scottsdale and brought her to the home of two primate experts in San Antonio who cared for her until she was old enough to be introduced to another juvenile rhesus macaque, Phoebe. Phoebe was born at the sanctuary in September of 2018. Just like other sanctuaries, PPI takes medical precautions to ensure there are no unintended pregnancies.
Male monkeys, chimps and lemurs undergo vasectomies when they arrive. A previous veterinarian missed java macaque Monchou. Monchou and snow macaque Amber are Phoebe’s parents. We think the pairing of Phoebe and Olivia is the start of a beautiful friendship.
Speaking of friendships, some notable introductions took place at PPI this year. While it was devastating for Wanda to lose her long-time male chimp companion Beau, a resident of PPI for 22 years, she is fitting in nicely with her new group of females, which includes Barbara and Shu Shu. We’ve observed that chimpanzee females understand that there is power in numbers and will stand up for and defend each other if necessary.
Up until recently, the nature of female chimpanzee social relation – ships was shrouded in mystery. Much of the research focused on the ostentatious behavior of males—from their cooperation to their aggressive competition. Female social roles, to some researchers, were confined to motherhood or sexual attraction to males. It had been written, in fact, that they weren’t that social at all.
Now we know better—the subtlety of social behavior in female chimpanzees belies a complex set of strategies that allow them to navi – gate the costs and benefits of group life. Dependable female groups offer stability and perhaps even joy in an unpredictable environments. Another secret revealed—female chimps are better than males with tools. We are seeing firsthand the ability of female chimpanzees to go with the flow at Primarily Primates and connect with their gal pals simply because it brings them joy. Typically, not all chimpanzees have the same importance within their group.
There is a linear hierarchical structure where each member has a rank. An alpha male leads the community, but there are other males too, and they all are above the females, who they try and dominate.
However, with Wanda, Shu Shu and Barbara, camaraderie seems more important than rank. Perhaps it’s the similarities of their backgrounds—all were exploited by research. Barbara came to PPI in May of 2005. In her previous life, she was shuffled between many different research labs.
Shu Shu got her name from a veterinarian at the now defunct lab that housed some 300 chimpanzees and nearly 300 monkeys who were subjected to intensive biomedical research in areas including reproduction, blood transfusions, hepatitis B and HIV. Prior to her life at a testing facility, Wanda lived in a brothel located in Philadelphia.
Of course, no friendships are without any arguments, but when any tension arises Barbara keeps the peace and will quickly make sure everyone makes amends. Shu Shu loves nesting but is best known for adoring and carrying around stuffed animals.
Wanda loves to take stuffed animals apart; however, she leaves Shu Shu’s precious belongings alone. At a summer party in the Prima – dome celebrating their introduction, the three females showed just how social they were—they foraged together in the grass and in a pool filled with berries, unwrapped boxes filled with popcorn and other treats and eventually climbed 25 feet to a cupola where they could rest on a hardwood deck.
There, they basked in the sunlight, looking like they were going over the details of the party—just as human ladies would after a night out. In August, care staff decided that since these females clearly have each other’s backs, they would introduce Jason to the group, since his former troop mates had passed away.
One concern was that Shu Shu might feel intimidated, as Jason, who was owned by the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University before finding refuge at PPI in 2000, had a reputation for being too rough with females. However, during initial introductions Shu Shu was unfazed—she just looked on with her teddy bear as Barbara and Wanda got to know Jason. It was obvious her confidence was bolstered by her relationship with the other females.
In a different area of the sanctuary, we have our version of “The Golden Girls.” Well, two golden females and a male, to be exact.
When a traveling roadside zoo in Washington was forced to shutter its doors due to financial difficulties, Primarily Primates provided refuge to four monkeys and a parrot. No one realized one of the monkeys, Tootsie, a female capuchin, was pregnant.
Tootsie delivered her baby but abandoned her child, possibly due to a lack of mothering experiences when she was young. The delicate baby, named Tootsie Roll, had to be removed. PPI care staff spent weeks nurturing her until she was strong enough to be introduced to other capuchins. Tootsie Roll, 31, is now in her golden years at the sanctuary, and was recently introduced to two other older capuchins, Corky, 42, and Chrissy, 39. They occupy a habitat filled with bamboo and hiding places, the perfect place for the trio to enjoy the advanced years of their lives. We know Chrissy is an ex-pet, but little is known about Corky’s life prior to coming to PPI. What we do know though is that capuchins social organizations are characterized by discrete hierarchies of rank between both sexes and different age classes.
Both male and female rank hierarchies are correlated with age, with the older individuals typically being higher ranked than younger individuals. It seems like these three capuchins are happy to share rank equally. That’s what happens when you’re older and wiser.
Editor’s note: Wanda passed away on Oct. 23 from a heart attack as this article was going to press. She showed no signs of being ill. We will sorely miss her mischievous behavior and overall presence at the sanctuary. She would have been 42 in January.