Vervet monkeys and garden birds

Did a talk about monkeys in the Port Edward library hall on Thursday last week, and when it came to audience comment and question time, sure enough the same old cliches about the destructive nature of monkeys were dredged up. As they they say, “nothing new under the sun”!

Anyway, the one that I find exceptionally irritating is that “monkeys are breeding out of control and have destroyed the birdlife in my garden/neighbourhood/nature reserve and more”. This is, of course a load of twaddle!
When I tell the grumpies this, they are most indignant. Then I hear about the Laughing Doves, the Dusky and Paradise Flycatchers, the Sunbirds, etc, etc, who used to nest in their gardens for years until along came the over-breeding monkeys, ate the young or eggs and broke the nests before tossing them to the ground. Even the Weavers, who usually get the sharp edge of the grumpies’ tounges for destroying Palm and Fever Tree foliage (yes, the same Fever Tree that is really endemic to northern KwaZulu-Natal and doesn’t actually belong in the so-called “indigenous” gardens of most of the rest of KZN) are in favour when the pesky monkeys come around and help themselves to Weaver eggs and chicks. Let a Gymnogene raid the same Weaver colony and the bird lovers are ecstatic!
So why is this claim that monkeys are breeding out of control a load of twaddle?
Fact is that anyone who takes a minute to see what is happening to urban monkeys and those on farm lands will see that the huge numbers dying every day make it impossible for monkey numbers to be on the increase, and our statistics and troop monitoring tell us very loudly that, on the contrary, the number of monkeys in these areas is steadily on the decrease.
So, if not the monkeys, who or what should take the blame because some folk are no longer experiencing the joy of indigenous birds breeding in their gardens and neighbourhoods, if in fact this really is the case?
Firstly, I would like to see the results of some unbiased research on the subject. Then I would also like to see if the researchers have established whether or not the displaced breeding pairs have simply decided to nest elsewhere due to interferences, including that caused by naturally foraging monkeys because the birds had unwittingly chosen to nest in the resident Vervet troop’s daily foraging path.
Surprising as it may seem to the “gotta have the birds breeding in my garden and eating off my bird-feeding tables” folk, there are many other factors impacting on the birdlife in their gardens and surrounds. Many other bird species such as certain Shrikes, Coucals, and Gymnogenes routinely raid the nests of birds. Raptors such as Sparrowhawks and Goshawks catch the parent birds and so also condemn the young to death by starvation, and believe me, the abundance of bird tables with their over fed avian patrons makes the life of these raptors just pure joy. Then there are other natural predators such as Genets, certain Mongooses (and I have personally witnessed Slender Mongooses taking Glossy Starling chicks from their nesting hole in my neighbours Natal Fig), and arboreal snakes who forage freely in our leafy gardens by day or night and who certainly don’t give any on-the-nest parent bird or their eggs or nestlings a miss. Of course we cannot deny the fact that domestic cats, both owned and feral, as well as introduced rats, and even terrier dogs such as the Jack Russell, all take a heavy toll on the birdlife in our gardens and neighbourhood. Add to this the birds dying from being shot with airguns (pellet guns) and catepults, struck by motor cars, flying into electric fencing, getting caught on razor wire, and also from smashing themselves into reflecting window panes on houses and shops, and suddenly we see that monkeys are carrying the blame when in fact they are mostly just a very small contributor to a much bigger picture.
Bottom line is that if the numbers of certain bird species in urban gardens and neighbourhoods are dropping, look for the real reasons as to what is causing this. Just because monkeys are forced to forage throughout their historical territory along routes that bring them into “your” garden, makes them visible to you, and gives you a regular target for your frustrations, doesn’t make them the destructive criminals they are branded by a small, but dangerously vociferous, frequently violent, minority!
My advice to the people who hate monkeys and use the “but they destroy all the birdlife in my garden/neighbourhood” moan to prop up their indefensible, xenophobic-like attitude and behaviour, is to take some time out and just observe the monkeys the next time they visit your garden. Then you will learn what truly amazing little animals they are, and you will realise what a privilege it is to have them around!
Come on, give the monkeys a break! And while you are doing this you might even let your mind wander to the possible effects that habitat destruction, road noise, light pollution, construction activity and noise, and even global warming, are having on the nesting success and presence of many bird species that used to frequent your garden. And whilst you’re about it, don’t forget that curse called FIREWORKS, that at the time of Diwali and Guy Fawkes, even New Year’s Eve, chases terrified parent birds off the nest when many have young or eggs in the nest, causes them to suffer broken wings, legs and beaks or to die from collision with tree branches, powerlines, and other obstacles they can’t see at night.
Monkeys really to blame for a drop in urban bird numbers? I think not!

How many deaths will it take till we know…

Its that time of the year again when pregnant Vervet mothers are getting to the end of their seven month pregnancy. It’s a bad time for them because they are that much slower than usual and so are more vulnerable than usual to being hit by motor cars as they cross roads, being caught by dogs as they pass through gardens or shot by sadistic, pellet gun wielding morons as they forage for food in residential areas.

In the past two weeks we have rescued a young adult, first-time pregnant, Vervet from other monkeys who had viciously attacked her over the course of a few days. Her injuries were bad but not life-threatening, if correctly treated – which was done by our vet, Dr Kerry Easson of Riverside Veterinary Clinic, Durban North. Unfortunately, this extremely stressed young monkey aborted her baby ten days after being rescued. It was so very sad watching her as she gently touched her perfect, but dead, baby lying in the bottom of her cage . After giving her a short while to deal with her loss, we removed both baby and afterbirth. Hopefully she will be able to enjoy the proud pleasure of her own baby next year.

Another female in an advanced stage of pregnancy was hit by a motor vehicle right outside Equitack, the animal feed store in Assagay where we buy our monkey nuts and bird food. The monkey-friendly staff there called us immediately and we managed to get the monkey to Kerry within an hour. Having taken a terrible blow to the head she was in a comatose state and had to be syringe fed. After being in our care for a few days she started a spontaneous abortion of her baby. Not having the conscious ability to deal with this process she was in danger of dying a slow and painful death. We rushed her to Kerry who, after establishing that the baby was definitely dead, did the necessary surgery (pic on the left) to try and save the mother’s life. Opening the blood-filled womb Kerry found a dead baby and a totally detached placenta – the result of a severe impact to her body as she was hit by the car. We were devastated when, after seeming to rally well after the operation, she died during the night.

Last Thursday we rescued a young female Vervet in Umhlanga – see our previous Blog post – who was inexplicably blind and in a total daze. She was also heavily pregnant! Within a day-and-a-half she fully regained sight and also her awareness, and she seems totally recovered from whatever afflicted her. Her unborn baby too seems fine and she is now very ready for release as is obvious from her constant attempts to escape from her holding cage. Our plans to release her this past Sunday came to nought as we were unable to find her troop and were very reluctant to release her to face the world without the support back-up of her troop-mates. Fortunately we met a security guard close by who knows her troop well. He is on duty six-to-six every day and will phone us as soon as he sees her troop. It will be good to have a happy ending to this rescue!

Not so good the ending to the rescue we were called out on this afternoon. A mature female Vervet in the late stages of pregnancy was hit by a car in Umhlanga Rocks Drive, La Lucia Ridge. We received a call from Paul who said his wife had phoned him to say she had seen a monkey run over and that she had stopped to try and prevent other cars running over it as it dragged itself to the centre island and into a flower bed. We aso got a call from Mark who said he had seen the same monkey dragging herself over the road with cars literally driving over her, their wheels just missing her.

Tragically she died in Carol’s arms at the vet clinic as Kerry, who was on leave for the day and had responded immediately to our call for help, arrived to attend to her. The baby in her womb was still alive but unable to survive such a premature entry into this world, so with heavy hearts we watched as Kerry euthanased it.

Right now this world really is not a good place for monkeys. Fortunately we get great support for our animal rescue work from the Caxton group of community newspapers, which is what happened last year when the Northglen News asked us for a piece on how people can help monkeys, and especially moms and babies at this time of the year. What we sent them follows and formed the basis of their published article on the subject. The same article would not be out of place or time if published by them, and other newspapers in the group, again this year:

“The following in response to your request:

This is the time of year when, after about 200 days of pregnancy, female Vervet monkeys are giving birth to their babies. It is a very dangerous time for mothers and babies. Because urban and industrial development has impacted so heavily on the monkeys’ habitat, they have to cross many roads and pass through gardens with vicious dogs just to be able to get around their territory looking for food very day. Heavily pregnant mothers, and mothers with babies, are at even greater risk because it is so much more difficult for them to cross roads quickly, scale high perimeter walls or climb into trees when they are trying to avoid motor cars or fierce dogs. “As a consequence, many of these pregnant females or mothers with newly born babies are hit by motor cars or caught by dogs, resulting in the death or serious injury of both the mother and baby, or premature birth and death of the baby” says Monkey Helpline rescuer and spokesperson, Carol Booth.

“This year the Monkey Helpline has rescued more injured, heavily pregnant female monkeys than at any time in the past,” says Booth. “In recent weeks our high care facility has resembled a maternity ward full of injured, pregnant mothers. The sad thing is that with the exception of only two out twelve, they have all lost their babies due to the trauma they have suffered.”

Booth also said that from the number of reports received from Monkey Helpline monitors and members of the public, there is also a higher than before number of mother monkeys carrying around dead babies. “This could be the result of the drought we have been experiencing as well as extremely high stress levels that the monkeys have to endure in the increasingly monkey-unfriendly world they are being forced to try and survive in.” she said.

Booth says that the Monkey Helpline has even rescued a female monkey whose baby was killed in her womb after it was hit by two pellets from a pellet gun. “She was very obviously pregnant and the callous person who shot her must have known this.”

Booth appealed to motorists to help pregnant monkeys by slowing down when they noticed monkeys crossing the roads and to be alert to the possibility of a young monkey darting across the road in an effort to catch up to its mother. And dog-owners should control or confine their dogs when the monkeys are around. “As we have said, the heavily pregnant and new mother monkeys are much slower than the other monkeys and they need any help we can spare.”

Lastly, even though the sight of monkeys carrying babies often evokes a response that “there are monkeys everywhere” and that a monkey “population explosion” is imminent, nothing could be further from the truth. Most baby monkeys, over seventy-five percent in fact, die before they reach adulthood. “Added to this devastating juvenile death rate is the high number of older monkeys being killed on our roads, killed by dogs, shot with pellet guns, caught in snares and traps, poisoned, etc, – we are definitely looking at the reality of urban monkey extinction in the not to distant future if things don’t improve drastically for the monkeys. No population of animals, no matter how adaptive to changing conditions, can survive such an indiscriminate onslaught. Over extended periods the Monkey Helpline rescues an average of three monkeys every two days. Over a recent two-day period we rescued eight injured and dying monkeys, half of whom were heavily pregnant mothers.”

Given our experiences over the past few weeks, things are not going to be any better for pregnant monkey moms, or new moms and babies, this year. I would so love to be wrong!!

Pellets, pellets and more pellets!

It is a fact that monkeys are going to be injured, even killed, in ways that we can have little control over. We do our best to minimise the harm that befalls these little animals whose continued presence in the urban environment is more a testimony to their survival skills and adaptability than it is the result of our efforts to protect them. But dogs, motor vehicles, power lines and razor wire will inevitibly take their toll of monkey lives and the best we can do is create an awareness that will see people having better control over their dogs, driving with care, insulating and excluding live power lines wherever possible, and being aware of the threat their security measures hold for all animals. This and much more we can continue to do, and where monkeys still fall victim to these dangers we can only hope and trust that someone with compassion and a sense of social responsibility will notice and call on us or any other capable entity to come to the rescue.

But when it comes to the death and suffering caused by the malicious intolerance of the pellet gun-wielding nazis who pollute our society with their toxic presence there can be no excuses, no exceptions and we must do everything in our power to identify and punish these morally retarded cretins.

Too often, almost daily in fact, we see the destructive effects of pellets in monkeys. It may come as a surprise to those who don’t read our leaflets and press articles, attend our talks, or visit our blog or our website, or engage us in discussion to discover that over eighty percent of the monkeys we rescue have been shot with pellets. We cannot publicise this fact often enough. So, as frequently as we are able to, we approach our contacts in the media for their assistance, and the following letter to the editor of a community newspaper was one such attempt to expose another case of gross cruelty and suffering:

“Dear Editor,

A few days ago we were called out to do a monkey rescue in Umhlanga. What we found when we arrived at the scene was a large, fully mature but very thin male Vervet who was obviously in severe pain and close to death.

We rushed him to Riverside Veterinary Clinic where X-rays revealed four lead pellets still lodged in his body. Humane euthanasia was the kindest option, and as we have done so often we watched silently as his body relaxed into instant and pain-free, but so unnecessary, death.

A post mortem showed the internal wounds and abscesses caused by the pellets. The vet confirmed that he must have endured terrible suffering!

Then it occurred to me that the heartless monster for, whom a bit of monkey mess in his home, or the loss of a few bananas, apples, or paw-paws, or the monkey “teasing” his dogs was so unbearable that it justified shooting the monkey with a pellet gun, was not actually getting the full benefit his efforts deserved. I mean, all he would get for his callous efforts would be the sight of a monkey leaping in pain and running from something it hadn’t actually seen. Surely scant pleasure for one so sadistically intolerant!

So I am making this offer to all the bloodthirsty bullies who think nothing of inflicting pain and suffering on the innocent monkeys who are trying to survive as best they can in an increasingly monkey-unfriendly world.

When next you shoot a monkey with a pellet gun, feel free to contact me and tell me about it. Then, if the monkey doesn’t die unnoticed and terrified under some bush, but is fortunate enough to be rescued by us, I can call you to come and inspect the effects of your ghastly deed. You would get so much more value for your efforts if you could witness the terrible suffering your victim has endured. You deserve to see what your pellets have done to the monkey’s internal organs – the adhesions which painfully inhibit breathing, digestion and even free movement as body parts grow onto each other in an effort to heal the damage caused by your pellet as it smashed through soft tissue spilling blood and digested food into the body cavity. You really need to see the laboured breathing of a monkey with its one lung collapsed and its chest slowly filling with its own blood until it suffocates or dies of heart-failure, all caused by your pellet.

Why shoot a monkey in the eye if you can’t watch it running blindly into trees and walls and under the wheels of motor cars? Why shoot a monkey in the leg, smashing its femur and ripping muscle from bone if you can’t watch it shivering in excruciating pain and unable to sleep as infection sets in and eventually kills it days, or even weeks, later? This and so much more you are missing out on!

My offer is sincere. Feel free to contact me and I promise to give you full value for your dastardly deed. Then I’ll do my darnedest to have you arrested, prosecuted and locked up. It’s the very least a scumbag like you deserves!

To those tolerant and caring people in Umhlanga north for whom the presence of monkeys is a source of pride and joy, and who had got used to the stately presence of the big male Vervet with the short tail who gently helped himself to the odd piece of food from your home and looked disdainfully down at your noisy dogs, you won’t see him any more. He is dead!

Yours faithfully”

And yes, many monkeys are also shot by chidren who don’t really understand the consequences of their actions, either because they have never been taught to respect and care for animals, or because they don’t understand what lethal power their pellet gun has, or because they have a parent or parents who actively encourage them to shoot monkeys and other animals. But we also know that many monkeys are shot by adults, mostly men, who do understand the consequences of shooting a monkey with a pellet gun. Adults who deliberately want to cause harm and even death. Truth is that once the pellet hits the monkey it makes no difference who squeezed the trigger or why!

And talking of who squeezed the trigger, so often we are asked if there is a pattern to where we find monkeys being shot with pellets. I suppose there is the belief that this kind of cruelty can only happen in specific communities. As can be seen from the preceding letter, affluent societies are not a cruety-free zone for monkeys. Just a few days ago we rescued a female monkey from Umhhlanga. She was unable to see and in in a complete daze. The vet’s preliminary check could find no sign of injury or physical trauma other than a slight discharge from one eye. Then an X-ray revealed eight lead pellets in her body, miracuously none of which had struck a vital organ, or the unborn baby in her womb. Inexplicably she regained her sight and full awareness within two days and later today will be released back where we found her. The point is that two of the monkeys specifically referred to in this blog were shot in an affluent area.

The female monkey on the right was shot many times, probably by a few differnt people over time, before we rescued her in Amanzimtoti. The day we caught her she had been shot just below the left eye and the pellet had exited above the eye, just missing blinding her totally. As the photo shows she has already lost her right eye to a pellet which, as seen in the X-ray photo below, is still embedded in the bone at the back of the eye socket.

All of which begs the question: “What are we doing about the pellet gun menace? “

Other than widely distributing our pellet gun leaflet which encourages people to identify their neighbours who are shooting at monkeys so that they can be charged and prosecuted, we highlight this problem during every talk we give. Already this year we have spoken at over seventy schools thereby diectly reaching tens of thousands of chidren who will hopefully carry our message back to their homes and the communities where they live. We have also spoken to numerous other groups. We are in contact with senior officials of the South African Police Service in an effort to get their assistance in having relevant sections of the Firearm Control Act enforced more effectively. We are producing an information leaflet which can be given to anyone purchasing a pellet gun. We are lobbying government for legislation that will provide for more stringent control on the sale and use of pellet guns. This, and everything else that comes to mind, we are doing!

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.

Injured male monkeys: To rescue or not!

Measured against the normally frenetic rate of rescues that have characterized the first seven months of this year, August, with the exception of the last three days, has actually been a relatively quiet month for the Monkey Helpline rescue team. Not that we have been idle – rescues have still kept us busy every day but a high number of calls were about male Vervets injured during fights, and most of these did not result in an attempt to capture of the animal concerned. What we do when we receive any call about a Vervet who might need rescuing, is ask the caller a number of pertinent questions. For example: Where exactly is the monkey? Is it an adult or baby monkey, and what is the size and gender of the monkey? Is the animal alone or is the troop around? What is it about the monkey that concerns the caller (if possible, describe the injury)? Is the monkey bleeding? Is the monkey alert? Is the monkey moving easily or with difficulty? Do there appear to be any broken limbs? How long has the monkey been around? Is the monkey reacting to any food being offered? … and so on! Obviously the range of questions is adapted according to the answers given by the caller, which also determine how we respond to the call.

In the case of male monkeys we can determine fairly accurately from the answers received whether the injury is from a fight with another monkey. If we decide that this is the case, and also feel that he can recover without our intervention, and that the injuries will not debilitate him to the extent that he cannot defend himself against, or if necessary escape from, attackers then we will usually not go out and attempt a rescue. We explain our reasoning to the caller and ensure that the caller understands and is comfortable with our decision. However, if necessary we will respond immediately and attempt to capture the animal. We realise that every time we capture an injured male Vervet that we might be neutralising the effort he has put into defending his position and status in the troop and territory. After all, he might be injured but he has been victorious, and then we come along, capture him and undo all his hard work. In his absence the defeated male can walk into the troop unopposed and possibly even have entrenched himself by the time the recovered male is released back to his troop. So an understanding of Vervet troop society and dynamics is a crucially important aspect of rescuing. The decision to remove, even for a very short time, any male monkey from his territory, is one not lightly taken!

In most cases we decide to go and view the situation for ourselves and only then make a decision to rescue or not after we have seen the animal concerned. Wherever possible we make use of our network of rescue assistants to either go and rescue the animal if they can, or assess its condition and advise us whether a rescue is necessary or not, or to monitor the monkey until we arrive to carry out the rescue.

Fortunately, most of the injured male monkeys called in during August will recover without our intervention. And it is always easier for us to make this judgement call when the monkey is a regular visitor to the caller’s home. Then we ask them to monitor the animal and notify us if he appears to be struggling to recover. We tell them what signs to look out for. If they do call us again out of concern or uncertainty about the animal, we will go and observe him and make our decision about whether or not to capture him. Alternatively we call back later in the day, or the next day, and for as long as we think it necessary to find out how the monkey is doing.

As for the last three days of August, read about it in the next posting!