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A Sad Past and a Difficult Road Ahead – Mia’s story so far (Hugo P.)


Suffice to say this year has gone a direction I didn’t expect it to, and so, instead of continuing my university year in Sheffield, UK, I find myself sat around a kitchen table in Sarteneja, Northern Belize. I’m two years into a Zoology degree and relishing the opportunity to volunteer in a field I’m hugely enthusiastic about, in an environment Englishmen dream of.

An average day for me involves monkey feeds at 06:30, 10:00, 14:00 and 16:30, a manatee feed at 15:00 and assorted odd jobs throughout the day involving building pens, collecting monkey plant feed (called browse) and extensive fishing to feed one extremely hungry, loud, demanding and whiny otter who needs feeding seemingly every 30 minutes. My role in the monkey feeds involves catering primarily for Mia, an endangered Yucatan Black Howler Monkey, as well as helping with a collection of six other Howler Monkeys, but Mia was my original charge and has the most tear-jerking story and so that is who this blog will be about.

Mia is now around 5 but possibly older, and the vagueness of this information is due to the fact that she was, and still very much is, wild. Wildtracks first came into contact with Mia when Paul (the bossman) received a call saying a monkey had been hit by a car, and promptly travelled to the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic to collect her. It was only a few days after her collection that the full story was unravelled and the tragic tale was pieced together. Mia’s accident was called into the Belizean Forest Department by the driver, who stayed with the injured Mia until she was collected, and realised that Mia was not the only casualty, but that she had had a baby with her as well, which disappeared into the trees with the rest of the troop! The sex of the baby was never determined, but a later physical evaluation confirmed that she was lactating, which means that the baby was at most 18 months old, as this is the point they are weaned. Witnesses say they saw another member of Mia’s troop climb down and lead the distressed baby away by the hand. If the baby were at the upper end of this breastfeeding age, between 15-18 months, it may well have been old enough to survive in the wild; our fingers are crossed that the youngster survives.

The accident and her condition were extremely serious. She was found to have suffered severe head trauma when the car hit her, and was in a very bad way, so was therefore put on intensive care and fluid treatment for several days to help her recover. When she arrived at Wildtracks, Mia spent the vast majority of her time on the floor as her head trauma had left her seriously uncoordinated and she didn’t trust her own body’s ability to function. By the time I arrived, she had been with the project for 3 weeks and her confidence had risen to the stage where she was climbing, albeit extremely warily, around her cage. Her instability, combined with her wildness, caused her reactions around people, a necessary and unavoidable part of rehabilitation, to be frantic whenever a volunteer entered her pen to change her food or to clean she fled to the corner, terrified. Whilst this is of benefit to her in the long-term (as any response that helps to keep her away from humans may save her life one day), it is extremely detrimental to her in the short-term, as the regular stress may lead to weight loss, illness and may put her off her food. Over the past couple of weeks her reactions have lessened in their intensity and she is now content to be in the pen with volunteers she recognises, and allows me to cater for her with little disturbance. Her food intake is also pleasingly high, meaning the stress of both accident and trauma has not overwhelmed her -a very positive sign and bodes well for the future.

However, the story is not yet a complete success. Mia still is very secluded, and has no interaction with humans or other monkeys whatsoever, which is rare for a howler; while this is certainly in part due to her wild past, her introversion and guarded nature may also be a symptom of depression. Monkeys are extremely expressive and personal creatures, something I have come to appreciate in my short time here, and are very subject to emotions. Mia’s loss of her baby is comparable to a mother in our society whose child dies very young, as howlers are extremely good mothers, and the death or loss of a child through natural causes is very rare. Mia has been torn from a youngster that she may have cared for a significant length of time, so her behaviour is somewhat explainable, and unfortunately may continue for some time into the future. On top of this emotional damage her sureness in the branches of her enclosure is still not as good as it should be. I witnessed her miss a branch that she reached for only a few days ago, she cannot reach for food with her hand while sat on a branch, but instead has to steady herself with both hands and reach with her mouth, evidence that her coordination and balance have still not recovered, and her tail still lacks the dexterity and strength of the other monkeys - while other howlers will entrust their whole body weight to theirs’ Mia refuses to grip anything except with the very tip, a sure sign of damage.

Mia is on the road to recovery. It is hoped that she will recover sufficiently to be integrated into a pre-existing troop relatively quickly and, assuming everything goes according to plan, she should be released in the next few months. Whilst there is precious little we can do to help her tail or sense of balance to recover, we can provide a nurturing environment to help keep her stress levels down and provide the right food at the right times. We, the Wildtracks volunteers that give our time and commitment to the cause, and all of the fantastically appreciated donors that provide the financial lifeblood that keep the project running will continue doing what we can to help Mia and all the other monkeys recover and eventually be returned to a bright future in the wild.

Published by: Zoe Walker at 2013-03-16 16:21:54   [Link to this article]

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