By Karen Alford
A few weeks ago, I got to have an interesting an unexpected experience with a different kind of patient. On a Wednesday after lunch, my neighbor who lives a few kilometers up the hill from me sent me a text message asking my help.
Her message said only that they had a sick monkey. As that euphemism is often applied to family members in various situations, I went up the hill to see for myself. Sure enough she had a little black baby monkey trapped under an overturned wastepaper basket. She said she and the girl who lives with her had seen movement under a tree in their yard and first thought it was a rat or a cat. Then they realized it was a baby monkey.
There are monkeys on the island obviously; we often hear them singing early in the morning back in the jungle, but they avoid people and certainly never come this close to houses on their own. People hunt them for their meat, so that’s another reason we rarely see one.
My neighbor figured the mother was probably killed by someone hunting. This species doesn’t carry their babies, rather the babies hang on to their mothers and are thus carried. So very likely when the mother fell, the baby let go, and then, perhaps on his own for the first time, managed to wander into her yard from the jungle behind her house.
He appeared weak and dehydrated with cracked lips and ants crawling in his eyes, so they captured him with the trash can but now didn’t know what to do next. My neighbor has dogs who were barking loudly at this unfamiliar smell and he was out in the hot sun and clearly terrified. I brought him in under a shed, out of the sun and away from the dogs, and got him set up in a large cardboard box. We tied a shoelace around his waist and then the other end to a short piece of rope tied to a heavy piece of wood so he couldn’t escape.
They had given him pieces of banana but he wouldn’t eat. We also tried giving him water but he wouldn’t drink either. He was too scared of us to care about anything besides trying to get as far away as possible, though the short rope didn’t allow him to go far.
I had to go into town to buy medicine for the clinic so I picked up a baby bottle and some infant formula while I was there. Then, because my neighbor was busy, I spent the next four hours just sitting with him keeping him company while he tried nonstop to escape. I wondered at the ethics and wisdom of us trying to care for him. Maybe he was better off on his own? But his poor condition didn’t seem to support that. Sometimes it’s so hard to know what’s best.
I didn’t try to control him, but positioned myself so that as he tried different ways to escape his circling would eventually bring him to having to cross over my legs. Every time he did, I would scratch his back lightly and after a while he started resting on my leg and letting me scratch him in between his escape attempts.
He was super cute and would actually start to fall asleep with me lightly rubbing his chest or his back, which gave me an opportunity to clean most of the ants off of him, then suddenly his eyes would fly open, he would remember I was the enemy and he would start trying to escape again. But he resolutely refused to eat or drink anything, including the infant formula. Finally it got dark and I went inside to eat dinner with my neighbor, then came back out to sit with him some more.
When I came back out, he had managed to get himself hopelessly twisted in his rope to the point he couldn’t even move. I called my neighbor to come help, and held him while she released the rope and got it untwisted. He must have worn himself out by then because he was calm and relaxed sitting in my hands while she untwisted him, then we offered him the milk in the bottle again and he finally started drinking.
Once he realized what it was, he couldn’t seem to get enough. So you know, as now do we, yes, monkeys burp too. My neighbor and I high-fived each other and figured the hard part was over. As long as he could eat, there was a good chance he would be fine.
We then got him tucked into his box – I had brought a stuffed animal someone gave me a long time ago, and put it in his box. It was bigger than him but he wrapped himself around its legs and seemed comforted by having something furry to hang on to.
The next day I stopped by her house in the early afternoon on my way to the Catholic clinic to work. He seemed to be doing fine. He had gotten over his fear of people, and according to my neighbor was still drinking milk.
She had tied him outside so he could play a little, but he kept getting himself tangled and the rope was too short really for him to move around much. I wasn’t sure he would remember me from the previous night, and when he first saw me he was half strangled from being tangled in the rope and a wire collar – which for some reason my neighbor had decided was a good idea to put around his neck.
While we were getting him untangled again and removing the wire, he spread his arms across my stomach and held on to my shirt tightly for a few minutes, even after he was technically freed. My neighbor noticed and commented that’s how they hold on to their mothers. I’m not sure, but it felt like he was giving me a little monkey hug.
I had come bearing gifts again, this time Scoobi’s old tie line from when he was a puppy. It was one made for dogs and sent by a friend in the U.S. It was actually a thin steel cable coated in plastic, very lightweight, but stiff because of the cable. The hope was that it would be harder for him to get himself quite so tied up. At least it worked well for Scoobi, who suffered the same problem as a puppy. He could still get it wrapped around things of course, but it was more slippery and so easier to get untangled. It was also several meters long so he finally had room to really move around.
We took him out to her garden and he seemed thrilled to climb bushes and play on her laundry line. He ate leaves, and drank rain water from puddles on the ground.
This I was glad to see as he still seemed dehydrated despite my neighbor assuring me she was still giving him milk. We guessed him to be around 2 months old. I had looked up his picture online and decided he was a Simias concolor, or Pig-tailed Langur (named so for their short tails), one of the 4 types of monkey found on Mentawai. Classified as an Old World monkey, the same sub-family as baboons and macaques, not much is known about them since they are endemic to the four islands of Mentawai and sadly, due to hunting, almost extinct.
I did read that they eat primarily leaves, berries, and fruit. I also wrote to 2 primate centers in the U.S. asking for more information on how we should care for him and in regards to his nutritional needs, etc. I sent pictures to help them confirm his identity and perhaps guess a more accurate age. Happy that he was doing so well, I only stayed about half an hour, then went on to the Catholic clinic for my afternoon shift.
Alas, the next morning, early, my neighbor called and said he was really sick. Apparently when she got up, he was barely conscious and had vomited a lot of “black stuff.” When I got there I was shocked at his condition, almost completely lifeless, though he made a weak attempt to pull himself on to my lap when I sat down with him.
Maybe he ate something poisonous when he was in the yard the previous day, or perhaps one of her dogs had managed to grab him, though there were no bite marks or other injuries we could see.
Or maybe he had been sick all along and just suddenly got worse. Vomiting up black stuff usually indicates a GI bleed, so regardless of the cause, this was serious. We decided it was best if I took him with me so could keep a close eye on him and try to figure out how best to help him. I cancelled my day’s activities to stay with him and try to find out what medicines, if any, and at what doses, I could give him.
I sent new emails to the 2 primate centers (though neither had yet responded, and in fact, neither have to this day) describing his condition and giving them a list of medicines I have available here and asking if any of them could be used. But I worried he didn’t have time to wait for an answer, so I kept searching until I found a website that had a drug list and dosages by body weight for primates.
Turns out there were some antibiotics I could give him, so I started him on those and started force feeding him with a syringe a few cc’s of alternating water or formula every hour to keep him hydrated. His little body was cold and didn’t warm up by wrapping him in blankets, so I ended up strapping him to me so my body heat could help warm him up.
Honestly I felt there wasn’t much hope, but he did seem calmer and appear comforted when I was holding him. I’ve learned over the years doing this kind of work that midwifing patients out with care and dignity is just as needed and important as midwifing them in. And sometimes that is the highest and only service I can offer. So I steeled myself for the inevitable outcome and focused on making him as comfortable as possible with the short time he had left. Some of my friends heard I was taking care of him and stopped by to see. One shook her head sadly and said he was clearly homesick for his mother and that was why he was so sick. Probably that too.
Sometimes he would rally and seemed to be getting better, then his condition would drop again. I spent a long night just holding him, sitting on the floor propped up with pillows. I kept him on my chest to keep him warm and whenever I tried to put him down and sleep beside him he would start whimpering and crying until I picked him up again. Around 3:30 a.m. he started having seizures, but would calm down if I stroked him, and at 5:30 he vomited again a tremendous amount of black blood, confirming he was bleeding internally and explaining his worsening symptoms of shock. After that he slept peacefully for a while.
At some point I dozed off and dreamed his mother was sitting patiently nearby with her arms outstretched, waiting…
Around 6:30 a.m. he was still sleeping peacefully, so I took a shower and fed my other animals, then saw he was starting to seize again. I sat back down and held him some more. It was clear he was getting weaker and weaker. Then, a little before 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, he had a sudden burst of energy. He opened his eyes, grabbed my thumb in his hand…and finally got to be reunited with his mother.
It’s funny how quickly we can grow attached to something so small and helpless. I’m never “steeled” enough.
I dug a hole for him in the plot of land in front of my house overlooking the ocean. I lined it with blossoms from my gardenia and hibiscus bushes, laid him on top, then covered him with more gardenia and lavender blossoms before filling in the hole. His last couple of hours were rough; he deserved to rest in peace.
I was grateful to share his journey though it was a journey cut short. Or, rather, a long journey in the time given, but sadly, time itself was cut short. But I’m even more sad to think about the bleak future of his species and how few other people will get to experience such an amazing little creature at the rate they are being hunted…
I spent the rest of the weekend drowning my emotional and physical exhaustion by watching nonstop presidential election coverage on CNNI (that’s one of the only stations I get right now since a storm took out most of my satellite dish). As ideas go, if you are already depressed, that has to be the worst therapy ever. But just as I was ready to give up on humanity and all hope for our world period, I remembered a blog a pastor friend did for Easter, using his favorite theologian, Dr. Seuss. The book is On Beyond Zebra. If you haven’t read it, here’s a quote:
“…from beginning to end, from start to the close,
everyone knows Z is as far as the alphabet goes.
Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor,
When I picked up the chalk and drew ONE LETTER MORE.
A letter no one has ever dreamed of before.
…So on beyond Zebra,
It’s high time you were shown,
Maybe you don’t know all there is to be known.”
So, in light of the recent celebration of Jesus’ Ascension, and in honor of all beings who have had their lives cut short, and in the face of all who want to cut short hope in the lives of others, I wish you all one more letter, and encourage us all to imagine one letter more for our world…
“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” ~ Mary Oliver
Karen Alford is a CBF field personnel committed to community development and transformation through medical missions. She has served on the Mentawai Islands off the coast of Indonesia since 2011.