BY Donna Parham
Photography by Ken Bohn
In the heart of Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the Acacia Woodland habitat, you might forget you’re at the San Diego Zoo. And just as in Africa, you’re likely to come across a vivacious troop of vervet monkeys Chlorocebus pygerythrus scrambling by. “Vervet monkeys are a great representative of the primates you’d see in Africa’s acacia woodlands,” says animal care manager Jill Andrews. Africa Rocks is home to two groups of the lovable primates.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
One rowdy group centers around Sahara, an adult female, and Luke, an adult male. Families of vervet monkeys are always growing: females typically give birth to a single offspring every year. In true vervet fashion, Sahara and Luke have been prolific breeders, with four male offspring. The oldest, Gomez, is nearly as big as Luke, and beginning to develop the blue scrotum typical of adult males. Keto is next oldest, and nine-month-old Tamu delighted keepers when he was born at the Zoo. The newest member of the family is six-week-old Enzi, who treats Zoo visitors to a rollicking good time as as he frolics in his new home. Like other vervets, he was born with a pink face and ears, and was covered in black hair. As vervet infants grow, their fur lightens, and their little faces turn black.
Like human babies, little Enzi has reached a stage where just about everything goes in his mouth. “He chews and bites everything,” says senior keeper Jasmine Crouse. “And, he climbs all over everything.” In a family with four young males, there’s always a lot going on!
The other troop includes adult male Vinny, adult females Thelma and Louise, and their male offspring Mosi Musa (Swahili for “first-born child”). So which of the females is the baby’s mama? Both! Louise gave birth to Mosi Musa in June, but when she wasn’t interested in mothering the little guy, Thelma took over the role.
“We were really surprised,” says Jasmine. “Louise loves to carry a ball around, holding it just as a mother would hold an infant, so we thought she was going to make a great mom.” Alas, she wasn’t so keen on the infant, even pushing him away. But Thelma appeared to be fascinated by the infant, and that gave keepers an idea: maybe Thelma would help them co-raise Mosi Musa.
Thelma couldn’t feed the infant, because she wasn’t lactating, so keepers bottle-fed and burped him. Then, they handed him over to his adoptive mom, who provided the kind of cuddles, hugs, protection, and socialization that only a mother monkey can give. “At first, Thelma got a bit anxious when we’d separate Mosi for bottle feedings,” says Jasmine, but she soon learned that keepers would return the little monkey to her. Jasmine says that Thelma has great maternal instincts—“super protective, but not overbearing.”
At five months old, Mosi Musa is a confident and rambunctious little monkey. Still, even a little screech from the mischievous boy still brings Thelma running to wrap her reassuring arms around him.
Jasmine presses raisins and sunflower seeds into a board with pre-drilled holes. It’s an enrichment item that gives the monkeys the opportunity to use their natural foraging behavior. But tomorrow, they will likely get different types of enrichment. Keepers rotate enrichment opportunities like puzzles, feeders, objects, and sensory experiences, to make sure to stimulate the kinds of behaviors that vervets demonstrate in the wild. “They tend to play with their enrichment more than some of the other monkey species do,” Jasmine says. She likes watching how the vervets interact with different enrichment items. The experienced primate keeper describes them as “super active, super playful, and super smart—easy to train, and willing to work with you.”
In fact, the keepers use rewards to train the monkeys to separate and to transfer into chutes, so that keepers can examine and care for them individually. This kind of husbandry training is important. Both Thelma and Louise are diabetic, something the veterinarians and keepers manage with oral medications and diet. “It can be challenging to work with diabetic monkeys,” Jasmine shares. “Fruit is limited, so you have to figure out other favorite foods you can use for training treats.” For all animals, treats must be approved by veterinarians and nutritionists. For the diabetic monkeys, that means high-protein foods like egg, avocado, and nuts.
Luckily, vervets are omnivorous—flexible and resourceful when it comes to food. Leaves, seeds, nuts, grasses, fungi, fruit, berries, flowers, invertebrates, bird eggs, lizards, and rodents are all on the menu in Africa. Vervets travel in big groups called troops, and spend their days foraging for food and finding comfortable and safe resting spots. Sometimes they venture into urban areas to find food, and in some places, people consider them pests, because the monkeys raid crops and orchards. They seem to get into everything!
“They get into everything here, too,” Jasmine says, chuckling. In their new home in Africa Rocks, people love watching the little monkeys play and forage. In addition to veggies and leaf eater biscuits, Jasmine feeds them mealworms, crickets, wax worms, nuts, and fruits. In the wild, vervets are very aware of everything around them—always protective of their troop. Here, “They just have to see everything that’s going on,” Jasmine says. As the monkeys romp through their new habitat, they tend to interact with people. “They want to see your reaction,” she says.
With all the hijinks happening, what is Jasmine’s favorite thing to see the vervets do? “Every day, it’s something new with them,” she says. “You just never know what they’re going to do next. They’re so much fun.” Yep, more fun than a barrel full of monkeys.