The Monkey Mommy: from Rescue to the Big Picture

In February, 2012, I moved to Nha Trang, Vietnam and arrived with stars in my eyes.  After a frozen year in Mongolia and a cold journey through South America, I came here with my dog and my cat from the US to start a new life. Vietnam seemed like paradise. I planned on just staying 6 months, diving, continuing my work on my Master’s degree, and then going to another country with my animals. 

And then I met Benjamin Button. Through him, I learned of the horrors of the Vietnamese wildlife trade while caring for one of its many young victims and since then, have started my own animal rescue, vet clinic, and farm sanctuary.

Little old man baby, Benjamin Button

This little guy was sitting in the front of a motorbike when I drove past him. The driver shouted at me to look at his front basket so I turned my bike around and pulled over in spite of knowing that I was walking into something pretty awful.  Tiny Ben was severely emaciated and tied to the bike with a shoe string around his neck.  He had sores all along his bony, and mostly hairless spine and he was terrified.

Having been in Vietnam only a few months at this point, I had no clue about the wildlife trade.  I only knew a furry thing needed me and I was the girl who saved furry things so obviously, I saved him. Now I am kicking myself for this, but I paid for him.  I honestly have no idea how much I paid, but I remember being enraged at this tiny old man who I bought him from.  I knew whoever else got him would not have a clue what to do with him and his fate would be much worse, so I justified it that way as most people do.  What I know now is that his mother was likely killed so the traders could steal him to be someone’s pet or to sell off into the research industry.  And I just paid the horrible man who did it. There is a big dilemma in that act. The wildlife trade is truly disgusting.

After giving the little man the money, I angrily took him away and I shouted things at him that my mother would have washed my mouth out with soap for saying.  I put him in my bag and drove him home on my motorbike with determination to be the best mom i could be to this tiny dude. 

I am by no means what anyone would call a motherly woman, but this 4 month old Stump Tailed Macaque needed a mother and apparently, I was it.  That was not easy, something every human mother knows well.  Little Ben was a screamer and very much did not like any time being separated from me, so I made a hippy mommy baby wrap and kept him attached to my chest day and night.  He had preemie diapers that were still massive for him, and I had only changed probably a handful of diapers at that point in my life so I found this somewhat novel initially.  To this day I can still say I have changed more monkey diapers than human diapers. We learned about all kind of monkey skills like foraging for his food in an enriched environment, climbing curtains like a tree at lightening speed, and sleeping on my face for inordinate amounts of time which served no rewilding purpose other than to make my life miserable and force me to lose sleep like any other mother of an infant.

I learned many things from Benjamin Button. I learned that a constipated baby monkey is pretty miserable and giving one an enema isn’t something I plan on putting on my CV.  I learned that a baby monkey, unlike a human baby, is flexible enough to put his little baby boy bits in his mouth, frequently… I learned that if you try to put a baby monkey down in the shower, you should expect him to crawl up your leg like you are a tree while screaming and frantically grabbing whatever he can along the way with those mini-vice grip hands of his. This was not at all fun,but I documented it anyway on a Facebook page called The Monkey Mommy.  I learned that there is nothing about raising a baby monkey that made me feel like keeping one as a “pet” and in fact, it had the opposite effect.  While I adored Benjamin in ways that I found were a result of some kind of sleep-deprived maternal experience, he was not my species, would never be my species, and aside from being an adorable pain in the ass, was never meant to live as a human.  I vowed to do all I could to prevent babies like him ending up in situations not fit for his species.  They all deserved a monkey life and as a human, it is my duty to ensure that for them. 

He slept with me (on my head), showered with me (also on my head), took Vietnamese lessons with me, and wrote my school papers with me.  For 16 days, I wrote madly to find any primate rescue working to end the wildlife trade who could take him.  I had no intention of trying to make him my new kid even though my cat and dog were totally fine with the idea as long as he wasn’t screaming.

Ultimately, I knew a monkey life was best so I eventually found the ENV Wildlife Crime Hotline and got help to get the Forest Protection Department to take him. They unfortunately lied on the paperwork saying I illegally bought him, kept him until he got sick and did not want him anymore. They said I decided to get rid of him so I contacted the great saviors of the Vietnamese Forest Protection Department….Uh huh… right, as if these are the people I would call to help an animal.   It was all in Vietnamese, of course, and I had no idea what was going on as a newcomer to Vietnam still stumbling around with stars in my eyes. Then they said he was released, but we know now he was then given to a resort where they kept him in an enclosure.  He probably would have been killed if he had been released but living out his life in a cage with no enrichment being gawked at by tourists was not what I wanted for him. 

His favorite place to sleep was on my head. It was cute the first time…

What I learned is this: vets here are rubbish, the government is not to be trusted, buying animals of any species contributes to their global exploitation, and birth control is my friend because babies are annoying.

From anger to action

The infuriating experience of rescuing this little guy and seeking a better life for him taught me about the major issues with both laws protecting animals in general here and the total lack of protection for common macaques that are widely exploited yet not endangered.  Being a coffee-addicted, impulsive, and risk averse woman of action, I had to do something.  My initial plan was to start a Macaque rescue because they are a common species, not endangered, but badly exploited and abused worldwide for illegal pets and research.  While it is illegal to have a primate as a pet in Vietnam, many species end up as pets all over the country and we get endless messages from tourists asking us to rescue them.  There are so few primate centers here and even if there were 100, it would never be enough to manage the caseload.  We hear so much talk about other animals traded like pangolins, bears used for bear bile, tiger parts sold on the black market along with rhino horn imported from Africa. But common primates are a major source of wildlife crime here with not a lot of great solutions.

I was sure at the time that writing about it and “creating awareness” (please NEVER say this to my face because you’ll get slapped) was some kind of a solution. I was sure laws must be enacted. I was convinced we/I could change the country and these little guys would not be traded if I just could come up with the solution.

Surprise! I was severely deluded and stuck in that batshit insane concept that the white man can come to another country and make positive change in a place where they know nothing of the culture, language, or politics and save the damn day. That nonsense pervaded my thinking for years after, likely a result of my degree in international relations from American University where I was groomed to be the world’s savior. But luckily I woke up to the insanity of my imperialist ways after 14 years away and now have managed to work out what I can and cannot do here and what international development really means for an American living abroad and trying to help where we feel needed and useful.

When I started the rescue in February 2013, I had a clearer picture of the nightmare that animals suffer through here, but I still intended to begin with cats and dogs and then with that success, branch out to other species that were badly under-served here including primates. I had just become vegan in 2013, but I was still drowning in the stupidity of the welfare movement and the bombardment of media about the dog meat trade. This was loudly proclaimed to be the worst crime of humanity by people who knew fuck all about it and happily ate other animals. But hell, I ate it up and spread that nonsense, too. We all make mistakes based on ignorance and brainwashing by media.

Now after 7 years of working with dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, and ducks with the odd bird, bat, or reptile thrown in, we are ready to face the music and expand again to working with any animal that needs us of any species we can provide the veterinarians and facilities for. We have long known the horrors of the Vietnamese veterinary community and their idea of medical treatment, so focusing on that end of things is not negotiable. This is a HUGE step and one that will push us out of the dog/cat rescue world which I have grown to despise for its flaming hypocrisy on the root of animal suffering (which I was happily a part of for far too long), to the wildlife trade and conservation sector which is represented by only a few organizations here which are only able to manage several species that are most donor-friendly.

Wildlife faces a tragic dearth of veterinarians in Vietnam like most other sectors and this is mostly notable in central Vietnam where we have none at all with any capacity to manage non pet or farmed animal species. Those who can barely manage a cat vaccine certainly aren’t qualified to manage a monkey electrocuted on a power line or a sea turtle caught in fishing line with severe lacerations to stitch up. We’ve got to address the problem where we know we can help and getting vets here and getting local vets who want to learn the help they desperately need is what we can do best. If that means a cat, primate, reptile, cow, or chicken gets the help they need now or over the coming decades, we are helping.

Fuzzy picture of my baby wrapping genius. Slept like a baby and I could still clean and work!

From the lessons I learned from Benjamin Button, to those that have been drilled into me over the past very difficult years working in animal rescue and veterinary medicine in Vietnam, I know that there is only one way forward. We have to put our energy on the projects that help the most animals and with an impact that lasts decades, not days or months. We are going to provide the best care possible for these animals who are traded throughout the country and are injured and sick as a result of human intervention.

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