Gambit, a beautiful Rhesus macaque about five years old, arrived at our sanctuary in July 2021. His owner before he bought it when he was a baby. She dressed him in human clothes, hugged him, played with him, and treated him like a human child, but as time passed, that person’s circumstances changed. Gambit passed on to other members of the family and began to grow into adolescence. Over the years, the young macaque was becoming increasingly aggressive, a natural occurrence in monkey society as youngsters seek to find his place in the social hierarchy of their pack. He bit one of his keepers and they got scared of him. He was locked in a 60 cm x 60 cm x 90 cm cage, secured with a padlock.
When I first saw Gambit it broke my heart. He was skinnier and paler than any other monkey he had ever seen, due to not having had access to sunlight for three years. However, his behavior was even more disturbing. He was going round and round in his cage and throwing himself against the bars if he got too close to me. This repetitive behavior is known as stereotyping and is only seen in wild animals when they are in captivity. It is an outward manifestation of the stress and trauma they have suffered, a survival mechanism to cope with their empty and miserable lives in cages.
Gambit’s first time out of that tiny cage, after three years of incarceration, was when our team arrived to pick him up and travel the 1,300 miles from Las Vegas to South Texas to begin his new life in our sanctuary.
With an area of 71 hectares, in our sanctuary the sun shines most of the year, and in the few cold months the monkeys can take refuge in its interior spaces, specially designed and heated. The monkeys are cared for by expert staff, including our own veterinary team. They are provided with excellent nutrition, space, enrichment, and most importantly, the company of other monkeys. We are one of the few sanctuaries in the world that have received accreditation from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), which means that we have passed the complex and rigorous inspection process that confirms our high standards. I am proud of the work we do.
But while I was thrilled that Gambit was coming to live with us and getting a second chance at life, my emotions as we drove the long drive home were mixed. Although Gambit would receive the best care we can give him for the rest of his life, he would continue to live in a cage forever. Although he was going to be given the opportunity to meet and befriend other monkeys, his past trauma might not allow him to connect beneficially with others of his own kind. Even though he would be given more space to live in than he had ever known in his short life, his world would still be much smaller than he deserved.
Because while the rescues give us reason to celebrate, the sanctuaries cannot guarantee that the monkeys will “live happily ever after.” Each individual’s journey of recovery is unique, personal, and sometimes the trauma they have suffered is too difficult to overcome.
There’s Charlie, for example. Charlie was a seven-year-old Japanese macaque who had spent his youth caged as a pet. Like so many other wild animals forced into unnatural captive situations, he bit one of his owner’s family members. The authorities almost killed him but a local kennel saved him. After being transferred to another sanctuary, where things did not go well for him, he finally came to us in December 2018. Charlie’s trauma was all encompassing. He bounced back and forth between terrified and furious – our staff had to take extreme precautions around him as he would take every opportunity to scratch or bite them. He behaved the same with other monkeys. His fear turned into aggressiveness and every time we tried to socialize him with another monkey he ended up hurting or scaring him. We had to go back to the beginning, which meant that Charlie spent most of his time alone.
One morning, my colleague called me with a strange tone of voice. “I think he’s dead,” he said, pointing to Charlie’s motionless body.
There was no obvious reason for his death, so we enlisted the help of an expert pathologist. Despite his behavioral problems, Charlie was in perfect physical health. His death was a complete mystery.
The report confirmed that Charlie had literally died of stress. The stress that he had culminated in over the course of his short life as he desperately tried to cope with the daily trauma of being denied his most basic biological, emotional, and psychological needs. He died because they had kept him as a pet. His story is all too familiar.
Gambit is fine for now. His weight is healthy, he has good color in his face and he enjoys his new space. He is terrified of the other monkeys. We have tried to introduce them but he runs away, hides inside his house and stays there for hours. It’s like he shuts down completely; currently being with other monkeys is too much for him. We hope this improves as he becomes more comfortable and distances himself from his horrible start to life. I’m hoping that he’s going to be okay and hoping that his story has a happy ending, unlike poor Charlie.
But even if Gambit pulls through, there are thousands more like him and Charlie who are suffering right now. It is estimated that there are up to 10,000 pet monkeys in the United States. Another seventy-five thousand are being exploited in laboratories. We can’t rescue them all. We cannot guarantee a happy ending for any of them.
Therefore, while sanctuaries do vital work to help animals as individuals, they are not the solution to animal suffering. Because the damage is already done when these animals are separated from their mothers when they are just a few weeks old. The work we do can help them live better, but we cannot heal the wounds caused by the trauma they have suffered in the past. We must continue working to end the exploitation of animals, all animals, by humans. Not even the best of sanctuaries can provide the life these animals deserve. Only true freedom can do that. We must keep fighting.