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.

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