Busting the “rabies myth”!!

It’s interesting to note is that not a single primate (non-human, that is!) euthanized after biting a human in the USA and then rabies tested, has ever tested positive! To the best of our knowledge, there has never been a positive rabies test in a Vervet Monkey in South Africa, though we are aware, and publicise the fact, that as with any mammal (humans included), it is possible for a Vervet Monkey to become infected with the rabies virus if directly exposed to it.

Whilst this information is not directly pertinent to the unsupported public fear, fueled by uninformed vets and human doctors alike, that free-ranging Vervet Monkeys are “rabies carriers”, please share it with everyone you think would find the information of use in our ongoing efforts to bust the myth of Vervet Monkeys being “rabies carriers”.

Due to the understandable fear associated with the horror of rabies, Monkey Helpline is frequently contacted for information about Vervet Monkeys and “rabies”. Free-ranging Vervets commonly eat foods that might result in “foamy-type” saliva collecting on the lips around the mouth, which is then incorrectly believed to be a sign of “rabies”, and more so if the animal concerned shows “defensive aggression” or just chatters when approached by a human. Another common misconception is that the repetitive alarm calls, particularly by various categories of male Vervets, and sometimes also occurring during the dead of night, are an indication that the monkey is “injured and calling out in pain”, or is “rabid”. It cannot be stressed enough that everyone involved in working with Vervet Monkeys, at every level and in every capacity, must educate the public with regard to the “truth about Vervet Monkeys and rabies”!

An interesting point to keep in mind and use when appropriate is that during the numerous talks and public presentations given by Carol and I every year to many thousands of people, of all ages and in diverse areas, about monkeys and our work with them, we constantly have to respond to “statements” and questions about Vervets and rabies. However, not once have I ever heard anyone expressing concern about stray dogs and rabies, even whilst it is a reality that rabies is rife in free-roaming, unvaccinated dogs, especially in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and that every person walking or cycling in or close to an urban area or a rural settlement is always at risk of being bitten by such a dog, and then contracting rabies.

Our thoughts on how it is that Vervets have avoided becoming rabies-infected, are that because they are so astute at recognising and responding to “body language”, Vervets see and sense the strange behavior of a rabid dog or other animal and avoid it as a precaution against being attacked by the dog/other animal. And it must be kept in mind that dogs are predators, and even a small dog can deliver a fatal bite to a full-grown monkey, hence monkeys instinctively avoid random contact with dogs a safety precaution. Obviously they have an understanding of the danger of physical injury and death, but have no concept of the “rabies danger”. It is also historically possible that there have been instances when a rabid dog/other animal did managed to attack, bite and infect a free-ranging Vervet Monkey, but the monkey has died from the bite injuries before actually contracting full-blown, transmissible rabies!

We all have the responsibility of emphasizing the importance of rabies vaccinations for domestic dogs and cats, or any other rabies-vulnerable pets and livestock, particularly in a rabies-declared area like KZN where it is compulsory to have your dogs vaccinated against rabies.

State funded rabies vaccinations, given independently of other vaccinations, whether by a private vet or a state vet, are FREE!

 A juvenile Vervet.  Rabid? Definitely NOT!!!  Just frightened?  Definitely!!!
A juvenile Vervet. Rabid? Definitely NOT!!! Just frightened? Definitely!!!

 

This stunning male Vervet’s aggressive defence of a young Vervet run over on a road in Havenside led onlookers to ask Monkey Helpline rescuers if he was “rabid”.
This stunning male Vervet’s aggressive defence of a young Vervet run over on a road in Havenside led onlookers to ask Monkey Helpline rescuers if he was “rabid”.

So deep is the myth about Vervets and rabies etched into peoples’ minds that just about any defensive behavior by Vervets, in response to a real or imagined threat, is interpreted as being a sign that the animal is rabid! People are hugely relieved when told that NO Vervet Monkey in South Africa has ever been recorded as being rabies infected!

This female Vervet Monkey had just seen her baby, struck and killed by a car as they crossed the road, picked up by a rescuer and put into the back of the car.  The rescuer had been called by a jogger who, unaware that a dead baby Vervet lay below the bank next to the road, believed that the mother Vervet’s protective aggression towards him was in fact the behavior of a “rabid” monkey.  The jogger left the scene before the rescuer arrived in response to a second caller who, whilst walking by, noticed the dead baby Vervet and realized that the female Vervet was threatening passers-by in an effort to protect her baby who she was still trying to coax into following her, so called Monkey Helpline to assist.  By coincidence the rescuer was at social event a few days later and overheard a person there telling a group of people how just a few days earlier he had narrowly avoided being attacked by a “rabid monkey” whilst out jogging!  Needless to say, this set the stage for an education session on “Vervets and the Myth about Rabies”!

This female Vervet Monkey had just seen her baby, struck and killed by a car as they crossed the road, picked up by a rescuer and put into the back of the car. The rescuer had been called by a jogger who, unaware that a dead baby Vervet lay below the bank next to the road, believed that the mother Vervet’s protective aggression towards him was in fact the behavior of a “rabid” monkey. The jogger left the scene before the rescuer arrived in response to a second caller who, whilst walking by, noticed the dead baby Vervet and realized that the female Vervet was threatening passers-by in an effort to protect her baby who she was still trying to coax into following her, so called Monkey Helpline to assist. By coincidence the rescuer was at social event a few days later and overheard a person there telling a group of people how just a few days earlier he had narrowly avoided being attacked by a “rabid monkey” whilst out jogging! Needless to say, this set the stage for an education session on “Vervets and the Myth about Rabies”!
Both of these monkeys were rescued on the same day, one directly after the other, from totally different locations, in the final stages of Tetanus (Locked jaw).  The stiffness and inability to eat  immediately aroused suspicions of “rabies” with both callers.  Tetanus infected animals cannot open their mouths once the muscle spasms reach the jaw and neck muscles.  As they get thirstier and hungrier they try to drink and to force food into their mouths, and this crushed food, mixing with the saliva that runs from between their teeth because they cannot swallow it, can form a foaminess around the mouth that leads to suspicions of rabies!
Both of these monkeys were rescued on the same day, one directly after the other, from totally different locations, in the final stages of Tetanus (Locked jaw). The stiffness and inability to eat immediately aroused suspicions of “rabies” with both callers. Tetanus infected animals cannot open their mouths once the muscle spasms reach the jaw and neck muscles. As they get thirstier and hungrier they try to drink and to force food into their mouths, and this crushed food, mixing with the saliva that runs from between their teeth because they cannot swallow it, can form a foaminess around the mouth that leads to suspicions of rabies!

VERVETS NEED YOUR HELP!

Not a day goes by that I am not blown away by the ignorance of people. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not maligning everyone who doesn’t know everything about all that is dear to my heart. The folk I am referring to are those geniuses who make absolute statements about things they actually know very little about, and, because this is the Monkey Helpline blog, it’s the Vervet monkeys who are, as usual, central to my stint on the soap box.

It seems that in a world of frustration at our inability to get on top of so many things that impact on our lives, such as essential service price hikes, crime, traffic jams caused by uncoordinated road-works or out-of-order traffic lights, politicians we don’t like, want or need, and so much more, we have to find something to vent on. And don’t Vervets make the perfect target for the disgruntled and frustrated!

In targeting Vervets, the accusers often make the most ridiculous statements as justification for their anti-Vervet attitudes and actions!

A real gem recently was a “knower-of-all-things” asking me if anyone was going to do “anything to deal with the monkey population explosion”. I told her in no uncertain terms that only an uninformed person could claim that there is a Vervet overpopulation. I tried to explain to her, in simple terms, the dynamics of Vervet monkey troops – the increases and decreases in the troop numbers from year to year, and why Vervet populations in urban and agricultural areas are undoubtedly on the decline because, in spite of an absence of so-called natural predators in the areas where these monkeys occur, the human predator is far more lethal than any natural predator could ever be. That Monkey Helpline does an average of two monkey rescues every day, 365 days a year, should tell you what a terrible situation Vervet monkeys face. And we see only the tip of the iceberg!

It amazes me that people who know little or nothing about natural processes and population dynamics, and even people who claim to be knowledgeable about such things, can make the most stupid statements regarding Vervet monkeys. And of course the number one gem of knowledge is this one about “overpopulation due to loss of natural predators”.

In the first place, how can anyone talk about an “overpopulation” if they haven’t the foggiest idea what a normal population size is? How often don’t we hear that “this morning we were invaded by a troop of monkeys at least 8, 12, or 15, or, heaven forbid, even 20 strong.” And then they add the cherry to the top, telling us that “every female is carrying a baby” as if that confirms the “breeding out of control”, whatever this might mean! In truth, a healthy Vervet troop size in urban areas should be 35 to 50 individuals. That we rarely see troops approaching 50 members is a clear sign that urban Vervets are in serious trouble!

And I was amused to learn that Vervet monkeys have “litters”, although how many on average per litter I was unable to establish, and that Vervets can “start having babies at the age of six months and that they are pregnant for six to eight weeks”. Fancy that! And all the while I thought that Vervets commonly have one baby, rarely twins, after a seven month pregnancy, and that female Vervets living freely usually only fall pregnant for the first time after they reach four years of age. Just goes to show that one is never too old to learn!

Fact is, there can’t be too many wild animals sharing our living space who are so misunderstood, maligned and persecuted as are Vervet monkeys. And because of this they bear the brunt of our actions that are generated by ignorance, intolerance and prejudice, with the result that they suffer terribly because of this, and so desperately need our understanding, tolerance, protection and care!

By now readers of this blog might have come to the conclusion that I am passionate about Veverts. I make no apologies for this, but then I am passionate about all animals, and in awe of nature generally. And I am horrified by what we humans have done to nature and all its components, including those that share with us so much of what makes us human and which has resulted in a “universal declaration of human rights”. Any sensitive person has only to devote a small amount of time and effort to getting to know about Vervets, who they are, why they are here in “our” space, and why they do the things that they do, and you would begin to ask yourself how we can allow them to be treated so badly – and, yes, this same line of reasoning applies to all animals, wild and domesticated, but as I stated at the beginning of this post, this is the Monkey Helpline blog!

The real tragedy of the situation facing Vervet monkeys is that it is only a relatively small number of people who will deliberately harm them, and yet the actions of this small number of moral retrards can, and does, create hell on earth for the Vervets. They shoot, poison, trap, snare and imprison Vervets with heartless zest. This, on top of the unintentional death, injury and suffering caused to Vervets by motor vehicles, dogs, high voltage power-lines, razor wire and more, makes their experience of humans something they could definitely do without.

But our experience of Vervets could so easily be something really positive. We must debunk the myths that inform peoples’ prejudice against Vervets – they are not “vermin”; they are protected by provincial and national conservation and animal welfare legislation; they do not attack humans or pets unless severely provoked to protect themselves; they are not carriers of rabies (there has never been a recorded case of rabies in a Vervet in South Africa), and there is NO Vervet overpopulation. Take time to get to know them and you will be in awe of these little animals as they grace us with their presence.


There is much we can do to right the wrongs that so negatively affect the lives of Vervet monkeys every day. Monkey Helpline is at the forefront, with a number of other organisations and individuals, of the fight for Vervets. But we cannot do this without your help, and the help of everyone you know, and the help of everyone that they know, and so on. And the first and easiest action you can take to help us help Vervets is to join Monkey Helpline, or any other Vervet care organization. Monkey Helpline has no joining or membership fee. Your visible support is what the Vervets need. If every animal-caring person becomes a member of a monkey-caring organization we will carry an enormous body of public support with us as we seek to make this a better world for Vervets.

You can be a part of something seriously worthwhile. All it will cost you is the time it takes you to email us on falconsa@worldonline.co.za or steve@animalrightsafrica.org with your name, address and contact details. Type “Monkey Helpline membership” in the subject line!

Do it now!

Pics 1 down to 5:
1 – A juvenile Vervet monkey rescued by Monkey Helpline after being severely mauled during and intra-troop squabble. Many youngsters are killed under these circumstances, often caused by excess stress in a troop due to the persecution and habitat destruction Vervet troops are having to deal with daily. “Face”, as this young Vervet was named, was nursed back to health by Monkey Helpline rescuer, Carol Booth, even regaining the full use of her right eye. Once healthy, she was kindly given a safe and happy forever home with Shesh and Malcolm Roberts at the Tumbili Sanctuary near Pietermaritzburg.

2 – This beautiful young female Vervet monkey was shot and killed with a pellet gun after being knocked from a garden wall by a stone thrown at her by a construction worker who wanted to eat her. The owner of the house walked up to the disabled and screaming monkey and shot her. Charges have been laid in terms of both the Firearm Control Act and the Animal Protection Act.

3 – This handsome youg sub-adult Vervet monkey was caught in a snare in the affluent suburb of La Lucia outside Durban. Wherever building construction is taking place and Vervets are around, snaring is rife. Fortunately this monkey managed to brake the snare cable but was still at risk of dying from the injury it caused. Monkey Helpline trapped the monkey, and after our vet, Dr Kerry Easson, removed the snare and treated the injury, he was kept in a recovery cage in the Monkey Helpline “high-care” for two weeks then released back into his troop.

4 – Sadly this sixteen-week-old Vervet monkey was electrocuted on high voltage powerlines and was mercifully euthanised after being rescued by Monkey Helpline. It is a tragic fate that befalls numerous Vervet monkeys every year.

5 – Hard to believe that these two beautiful adult male Vervet monkeys were rescued by Monkey Helpline during two successive rescues on the same day. Both were in the advanced stages of tetanus infection and suffering the indescribable pain that characterises this infection. Both were taken to our vet, Dr Kerry Easson, and gently euthanised.

Terror of Tetanus

June was a particularly bad month for Vervet monkeys. As mentioned in an earlier posting, by the evening of June 16 we had dealt with 32 dead monkeys – two for every day, and it never got any better! June 28 and 29 resulted in seven dead monkeys In fact, this whole year has been a bad one for Vervets in general. Also, this month alone we have had more Vervets dying from Tetanus infection than during the previous twelve months – and strangely enough none of the Vervets affected had wounds that looked particularly bad. Which just goes to show that the Tetanus spore can infect a body by way of even a relatively minor injury.

Tetanus, or “locked-jaw” as it is commonly known, causes a terribly painful and emotionally traumatic death. Veterinary/medical description and diagnosis aside, what we as rescuers see is an animal whose body is being poisoned by the tetanus toxins and starts going into spasm from the head down, muscles no longer able to relax after being tensed. As the “stiffness” progresses downward the jaw locks so that the animal can no longer eat or drink and so also suffers severe hunger and thirst. The animal desperately tries to put food into its mouth which it cannot open. Then the arms stiffen and it is forced to walk semi-upright on its legs. Finally, it stiffens completely in a fallen-over or hunched sitting position and dies, mostly conscious until just before death, starving, desperately thirsty and in excruciating pain. A horrible, horrible way to die! Those few we find are the lucky ones – euthanasia spares them hours, or even days of suffering before they eventually die.

But there was also good news. Four young Vervets were transferred from our “high care” to the Vervet facility run by Jan and James Hampton in Byrne Valley. They will form the basis of a “seed troop” for some of this coming season’s orphaned babies who will be raised by Jan and James (see www.thehamptons.co.za ).

We also released Pooh Bear, a beautiful and gentle big male Vervet who sufferd severe concussion after being hit by a motor vehicle in Kwa Mashu near Durban. His recovery took almost three months. He was released into our garden and has comfortable access to a large natuaral area, the Palmiet Nature Reserve. However, he chose not to move away and has actually joined our resident troop with ease. We see him almost daily.

Proving the point that the Monkey Helpline is not just about Vervets, we recently rescued a Thick-tailed Bushbaby who somehow had got himself stuck in an aviary full of birds and spent a few days there before we were called to rescue him. In good health, except for a sore nose (now healed) grazed against the aviary wire whilst attempting to get out, we will release him tonight, right into the riverine forest close to where we rescued him.
In closing this posting, feel free to contact the Monkey Helpline at any time if you want to get involved or if you want advice about indigenous and exotic primates or need assistance with any primate related problems.