It is a regular Thursday morning on the island. The sun is streaming in as I blow the steam off a piping hot cup of black coffee and check the most urgent emails in my inbox. I trade “buenos días” with each crew member as they head to the construction site over a chorus of monkeys howling out their territories for the morning. Last-minute directions fly in rapid-fire Spanish over my head as the construction vehicles rev to life, and the last few guys tighten their bootstraps, sling their machetes into their holsters, and disappear down jungle paths.
The hum of productivity settles into the headquarters tent – plans unroll, laptop keys chatter and the fan whirs. This is normally how I remain until the crew rolls back in for lunch. But very soon Carlito, one of our foremen, is back at the door again…
“Um, jefe, un mono…” (“Um, boss, a monkey…”) he utters, offering something to us in his outstretched arms.
I’m out of my seat too fast to hear what he says next, because looking at me from a pile of rags in Carlito’s hand is the tiniest, saddest, muddiest little monkey I’ve ever seen. As the questions fly around my head — She fell? Near the road? The mother is dead? — I gingerly extend a hand to introduce myself, as you would when approaching a horse or a stray dog. The little mono just slowly blinks her eyes and looks back up at me, pleading. She might be unable to move, maybe even dying. I reach one finger towards her hand in an effort to offer some comfort, and feel the almost imperceptible sensation of her fingers weakly gripping mine.
This wisp of a handshake is the only confirmation I need – this baby needs a hug, badly. Gently, I lift her cold, limp little body out of Carlito’s hand and cuddle her in my arms, holding her against my chest – and with movements so slight I can barely tell she’s moving at all, she tries to reach her tiny arms around me.
An overwhelming responsibility to protect her wells up in me. Turning back to the conversation, I learn the gravity of the tragedy in my arms: Carlito and crew were walking down a footpath towards the road when they saw a monkey face-down in the mud, dead; on her back was this baby, still gripping her mother’s lifeless body. Unsure of what to do, the men gently scooped her up and brought her to the boss.
I try to peel her from my chest to get the wet rags off of her, and she responds with a tiny set of howls that resemble the sound of a kitten meowing and a flail of her arms seeking shelter back in mine. Happy to see that her limbs are not broken, I carefully swaddle her in clean, dry sheets and zip her into my sweatshirt jacket to try and warm her up.
Undoubtedly exhausted from the trauma, the baby begins to drift to sleep in my arms. Ben and I stare at each other – equal parts scared and amused by what has just fallen into our laps. Now what?
This baby couldn’t possibly weigh more than two pounds and could hardly be six months old, yet her brief life so far has witnessed the trauma of falling 60-100ft, the loss of her mother, and probably hours of lying in a cold pit of mud for hours in the friendless abandon of the wild jungle.
What would we even feed her? What if she’s sustained internal damage? What if she doesn’t make it? This is the closest I’ve ever been to a wild monkey – but the enchantment of the moment vanishes as our worries about her well-being pound against it. We set out for Alouatta Sanctuary – a haven for abandoned pet monkeys, located just 45 minutes from us by boat and car.
Her big terrified eyes lock with mine every time we hit a bump in the road, and I speak to her softly in hopes of comforting her.
“You’re going to be okay, baby monkey, you’re going to be okay. You’re so brave, hang in there.”
Through the car ride, I try my hardest to stop thinking of names for her in my head – what if she really doesn’t make it? When our truck finally crests the last muddy hill on the long dirt road up to Alouatta, I suddenly feel a new fear washing over me – I wish we never came. The lodge had recently passed into new ownership, and we didn’t know anything about the people we were counting on to take care of this tiny monkey.
Seth, one of the new owners, greets us swiftly and begins to ask questions about what happened. I trade a nervous glance with Ben as we follow him over to the back of a van where a big wire cage gapes open – I stay a few steps back.
Who the hell are these people? They are just going to throw her into the back of a steel cage and drive away with her? My heart is beating fast.
I reluctantly hand her to Seth, and he walks to the back of the van — I want to scream.
“What’s with the cage?” Ben inquires, verbalizing our fear.
“Normally baby monkeys are crawling everywhere, and when we get a new monkey we need to keep it in quarantine. Monkeys don’t just fall out of trees; if her mom was sick, we can’t let that spread to the rest of the monkeys,” Seth explains.
I begin to breathe a bit easier as he gently examines her, carefully wiping the mud from her tiny face and giving her a miniature bottle of baby formula.
“She’s about 5 months, and really skinny at that. This one’s not in good shape.” Seth says with a shake of his head.
Yet she sucks down the bottle: a good sign. The Alouatta team (who does not shove her into a cage and drive away, but handles her with immense care) determines that she has a severe concussion, but that they can’t get to the vet until the morning. The only thing left to do is keep her awake. We’re not ready to let go of her yet, so Ben volunteers to hold her while we wait for our ride to come back. A little surprised, Seth agrees.
We take turns holding her for the next few hours – keeping a very sleepy and exhausted baby monkey awake is not an easy task, but it is an adorable one. At first, all she wants to do is cling to one of our chests with an iron grip, but little by little she begins to voluntarily lift her head and look at her surroundings. After a few hours, she decides to crawl up onto Ben’s shoulder. Then onto my head. She has already peed on us several times, and this time, as she is perched on my head, she pees straight down the side of my face. I know – gross – but I just laugh, I’m so happy that she is an alive, living, breathing and peeing monkey that I don’t even care.
Just as we prepare to go, she seems to come out of her concussion and into complete awareness. The sleepy, snuggly look leaves her eyes as she looks straight at us, and suddenly she’s halfway across the room, contemplating us with utter skepticism. Very, very slowly she makes her way across a stack of whale bones on the floor of the lodge, looking back at us over her shoulder. She crawls behind a spare mattress and spends the next 30 minutes regarding us suspiciously, ducking back behind the mattress each time we acknowledge her presence, which makes us laugh every time – with both joy and relief.
As we climb back into our truck to head home, some of the resident monkeys at Alouatta perk up to see what all the ruckus is about – curious, climbing, and ornery, as monkeys should be. I have a feeling that one day our quarantined island baby will find happiness in their companionship, and I find comfort in that as we drive away.
We heard the next day that they named her Ayla – like Isla with a silent “s”, after Isla Palenque, where she spent the first five months of her life with her family. It is a better name than any that crossed my mind on our dreadful journey to the lodge, a sweet name for an adorable island girl. In addition to being concussed, Ayla had pinworns, a respiratory infection from inhaling so much mud, and was severely dehydrated. But she made it, and just a few days later was taken out of quarantine to meet the other monkeys.
The professionals at Alouatta study the wild howler monkey tribes nearby, and have successfully helped other abandoned monkeys acclimate themselves back into a wild tribe – where they can live the life they are meant to live – with a mate, a social structure, and a family. One of the monkeys at the lodge takes on orphans, so Ayla will be able to have a mom to snuggle with again. And one day when she is old enough to mate (around 5 years old), hopefully, she will be back up in the treetops with a tribe, where she is meant to be.
Last night I was watching a tribe of howler monkeys lounging lazily in a tree on the coastline, and I was kind of talking to them (I have a silly habit of talking to the monkeys). I was thinking of Ayla, imagining that she had never fallen and that she was perched on the back of her mother in this flowering tree looking out on the Pacific sunset, and I just felt so overwhelmed with gratefulness for the healthy existence of our island tribes. A feeling of both responsibility and humility. I’d do anything to keep those monkeys up in the trees, happy, healthy and where they belong.