Lab Torture or Pets, Dumb Humans Keep Texas Primate Haven Busy

Rhesus Macaque
A female Rhesus macaque sits in the sun in San Antonio, TX. The monkey had been kept in a tiny cage in a New York City basement, her tail amputated, probably to accomodate diapers. Photographer: Mary Reininger/Wild Animal Orphanage via Bloomberg

The approach to the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary in Dilley, Texas, has an ominous look -- lonely dirt road, padlocked gate, a sign warning “Not Open to the Public.”

Inside the fence, however, the place is full of life, with dozens of macaque monkeys roaming the grounds.

The 186-acre sanctuary is the last home for macaques, baboons and vervets, many saved from miserable existences in roadside zoos, as lab experiments or, perhaps worst, as pets.

“There’s something inherently wrong with these animals living their lives in little cages,” says the sanctuary director, Tim Ajax.

Most of the more than 500 nonhuman primates here have the run of a 56-acre area, while the rest stay in fairly spacious enclosures.

“We’re at capacity right now,” Ajax says, but he’s preparing for more newcomers.

Last August, Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio, 75 miles to the north, closed its doors “due to overpopulation, underfunding and inadequate housing for the animals,” according to its website. As a result, 112 macaques and one baboon will soon be moving to the Born Free facility.

The new macaques had hard lives before San Antonio. A rhesus female had been a pet in a tiny cage in a New York City basement, her tail amputated to accommodate diapers. A Javan male was a research subject in a New Jersey lab. A male stump-tail, another former lab inmate, is missing some fingers.

Born to Be Wild

Many people try to make pets of monkeys without thinking it through. Primates can’t be domesticated like a cat or a dog. Eventually, usually around puberty, a seemingly tame creature will start to act the way nature intended, like a wild animal.

In Dilley, the animals will be treated with respect, and like animals. Human interaction is limited mostly to feeding time, when fresh produce -- banana, mango, corn -- is tossed off a truck.

“They do what they want all day long,” Ajax says of the free-roaming macaques. Many of them trail us, peeking between prickly pear cactus and mesquite trees, the latter stripped of bark by the tenants.

Some of the macaques are descendants of snow monkeys brought here in 1972 from Japan, where they had begun to encroach on Kyoto. “Those monkeys had to acclimate to coyotes and bobcat here,” Ajax says, as well as the occasional rattlesnake.

Others are kept in cages, as they are not assimilated into the free-ranging groups. Their enclosures are much larger than what the animals had been used to as pets or unwilling tools of science.

Fangs for Caring

A caged baboon, a former lab subject, has a tattoo marking on his face, but the sanctuary usually isn’t told what manner of experiments an animal endured. The thickly bearded fellow “yawns” to show me his canine fangs, lest I have thoughts about challenging his status. I do not.

The sanctuary faces challenges on many fronts. “We’ve had over a year and a half of drought, so it’s been very difficult to keep things growing,” Ajax says.

The operating costs of the sanctuary now run about $430,000 a year, an amount that will increase with the new arrivals. Ajax estimates that it will cost about $250,000 to build new enclosures, plus outlays for neutering, tests for TB and vaccinations for tetanus.

‘Animals Need Help’

Funding is a concern. With an economy that has been both sluggish and volatile in recent years, donors aren’t as generous as they once were.

“The past few years have been challenging,” says Adam Roberts, executive director of Born Free USA, the sanctuary’s parent organization. “The more people hear how dire the financial situation is globally, the more reticent they are to open their wallets. But the cause remains the same: the animals need help.”

Much of the misery could be avoided. A lot of the lab research is unnecessary. The National Institutes of Health recently announced strict limits on using chimpanzees for research, for example. And none of the pet business is justifiable.

“Most of the people working with animals in a sanctuary environment tend to wish we would go out of business,” Ajax says. “Not because we don’t like what we’re doing, but because we wish there wasn’t a need.”

There is a need, and will be for some time. You can “adopt” a primate with a donation via the Born Free Sanctuary website.

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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