Orphaned Costa Rica Monkeys Get a Helping Hand

Carol B. Lutyk
for National Geographic News
October 18, 2001
Like trapeze artists, spider monkeys swing through the treetops from one limb to the next, seldom touching down.

But when Adelina Schutt approaches a troop at Curú Wildlife Refuge on Costa Rica's Pacific coast, the monkeys quickly drop to the ground to welcome her. Rosita runs over for a hug, and Coquita snatches a piece of fruit from Schutt's hand.

Rosita and Coquita are two of the orphaned and injured monkeys Schutt has rehabilitated and then returned to the wild at Curú. More than 400 howler monkeys and about 20 spider monkeys live at the refuge, a six-square-mile (15.5-square-kilometer) area of dry tropical forest that Schutt's family has owned for almost 70 years.

Although monkeys once thrived throughout Central America, their population has declined dramatically. The remaining troops struggle to survive in patches of forest that have been fragmented by fields and pastures.

In some areas they are hunted for food. And many people keep monkeys and other wild animals in captivity, even though it's prohibited in Costa Rica.

In the past, Costa Rica's orphaned and rescued animals were given to zoos, which often didn't have enough room. Now, zoos send the animals to Schutt.

Schutt's newest charge is Chica, a howler monkey just seven months old. Perched on one's shoulder, she feels virtually weightless. "When she purrs," Schutt said, "that means she's happy."

Chica's first owners acquired her as a pet from someone who had killed her mother. The owners kept Chica chained and fed her bread, pasta, coffee, and soft drinks. When she began to bite, they looked for a home for her. She was weakened by diarrhea from poor nutrition when she was taken in by Schutt and nursed back to health with antacid medication, apples, and a proper diet.

Now Chica drinks a bottle of formula in the morning, then plays with the young monkeys that live close to Schutt's house. Around 4:30, Chica climbs down from the trees for her afternoon bottle. She sleeps with a teddy bear. "Like any child," Schutt said, "she's hard to put to bed."

By the time she's a year old, Chica will be "an independent kid," Schutt said. "Curú's howler monkeys will easily accept her because she's a female. Males want as many females as possible."

The Accidental Rehabilitator

Schutt, 36, became a wildlife rehabilitator unexpectedly in 1989, when a conservation group rescued a female spider monkey. At the time there were no rehabilitation centers in Costa Rica, so Schutt gave the monkey a home.

Of the 26 spider monkeys that have been rehabilitated at Curú since 1989 and later released, 14 are still alive. The normal life span of spider monkeys is about 22 years, although some live to more than 30.

Schutt, who has taken classes in wildlife rehabilitation and medicine, quarantines new arrivals to prevent the spread of disease to wild populations.

"Within Costa Rica she is one of relatively few Ticos (native Costa Ricans) who are so active in wildlife rehabilitation," said Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia. "Given the results of a survey that showed nearly one in four households in Costa Rica has had an illegal wild pet within the five-year survey period, there need to be more people like Adelina at work."

Though Curú is the only facility in Costa Rica where spider monkeys are returned to the wild, Schutt receives no government money. She runs the refuge on the limited funding that comes from donations and the sale of souvenirs. "We get almost no support, except from some kind hearts who believe in what we do," she said.

Her mother and brother help out, and she hires local children to keep the monkeys away from the road. About a dozen volunteers come to Curú each year, mainly from the United States, Great Britain, and Holland. They clear trails, guide visitors, run the souvenir shop, and help care for the monkeys.

Patient Dedication

"It's not enough to return monkeys to the wild," Schutt said. "You must also educate people. We invite school groups and go on walks to find monkeys. We don't touch the monkeys because we don't want kids to get the idea that it's okay to have them as pets."

Rodrigo Gamez, director of the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad in Costa Rica, applauds Schutt's work. She does an "excellent job in calling attention to the undesirable consequences of capturing and keeping wild animals in captivity," he said.

Two malnourished spider monkeys arrived recently, confiscated from a hotel where they were kept as pets. "They could break anybody's heart," Schutt said. "They were so skinny, and their teeth were a mess."

Schutt has spent a lot of time shifting them from a diet of bread, cookies, and leftovers to leaves and wild fruit. "So far it is working," she said, "but I wish they would get healthy sooner."

With her bright smile and vivacious manner, Schutt makes it all seem easy. Though she faces tough odds, her goal is "to go out of business someday."

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