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Willy, the Pickpocketing Macaque

Meet the primates of Black Beauty Ranch

The Humane Society of the United States / The Fund for Animals

  • Willy, a macaque, is seen here grooming a human friend. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • Clarence, a Capuchin monkey rescued from neglect as a result of the exotic pet trade, regularly bosses his caregivers at the sanctuary. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • White-handed Gibbon, Princessa, takes a snack break high in her enclosure. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • Kitty and Lulu are two of the three chimps at the ranch. Kitty was used as a breeder chimp and her offspring went into biomedical research; Lulu was used in hepatitis B vaccine research. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • Valentino, a Siamang Gibbon, was rescued along with his sibling as an infant from a breeding facility supplying the exotic pet trade. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • One of the old primate barns is removed to make room for the new one. Diane Miller/The HSUS

by Polly Shannon

Willy is an expert at untangling knots. He plays a mean game of "keep away."

And don't bother trying to hide things from him: He can nab your eyeglasses or cell phone right out of your pocket and run off before you even know it.

Willy's Opus

Willy is a 14-year old pig-tailed macaque, one of 23 primates living in sanctuary at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in east Texas, operated by The Fund for Animals in partnership with The Humane Society of the United States. He was kept as a "pet," but when he reached sexual maturity, he became aggressive -- which is normal behavior for a monkey.

No longer the cuddly little baby, the owner couldn't handle him anymore. He arrived at the ranch in 1998.

"Willy needs lots of attention and lots of affection. He's very observant and loves to get his hands on anything that anyone has," said Dawna Epperson, one of his caregivers at the ranch. "He loves his ropes and plays with them every day. They keep him busy."

A Life of Suffering

While Willy is a playful soul, the resident gang of six rhesus monkeys—relatives of the pig-tailed macaque—is remote and keeps to themselves. They aren't dependent on interaction with the caregivers.

Part of that behavior is due to the difference in the species, but part of it is due to the circumstances from which the monkeys were rescued. They were used in biomedical research and endured endless procedures and isolation, leaving them severely scarred physically and emotionally.

"We don't know exactly what type of surgeries or other procedures these monkeys endured, but they're very fearful of humans," Epperson said. "They're interactive with each other—grooming one another, buddying up—but they don't seek human attention."

The Old Ladies

Two geriatric female rhesus monkeys—Catherine and Roxanne—live separately from the other six. Catherine, like Willy, is an ex pet, and Roxanne was used in dental experiments. These old ladies are full of personality, but as is inherent in their species, they're not all that sweet.

The slow moving Roxanne tries to intimidate the caregivers by making faces that in nature might work, but not here. Catherine, who was severely over fed by her owner, is a feisty one, although she is intensely clever and observant and occasionally lets Epperson groom her.

All the macaques have special needs. For most of them, their emotional needs are the result of a history of suffering.

"They basically have a need for us to respect their space and conduct our contact with them in as non-threatening and non-intimidating a manner as it can be," said Diane Miller, director of the ranch. "We provide them with a peaceful existence after the abuse they've suffered. They are some of the unsung stories of the ranch and are why we're here."

Diverse Population

While the macaques make up the largest species of primates at the ranch, they're not the only ones.

The most famous of all the primates at the ranch are undoubtedly the trio of chimpanzees—Lulu, Midge and Kitty. Lulu and Midge were born in captivity and used in hepatitis B vaccine research. Kitty was thought to be taken from the wild as a youngster and was used as a breeder for biomedical research.

Robert is a baboon who was bred as a research animal, but because he was a hybrid of two baboon species, he was spared. Although their species would never cross paths in nature—baboons are from Africa and macaques are from Malaysia—Robert and Willy live together at the east Texas sanctuary.

Two siamang gibbons and two white-handed gibbons spend most of their time at the top of their habitats, traveling hand over hand through their specially constructed enclosure. The two species live in enclosures next to each other—and also sing with each other. And it's loud: Their tune can carry up to two miles.

"We know that from our neighbors," Miller joked.

The four playful capuchins—Clarence and three females called the Spice Girls—are very active and quick moving. They constantly run up and down, climbing and crisscrossing every inch of their habitat, which includes rope ladders, perches and ledges to climb and crates up high where they sleep.

Two brown lemurs—Pumpkin and Little E—round out the primate species at the ranch. Pumpkin was a pet and Little E came from a zoo. In the wild, brown lemurs—a threatened species—live only in Madagascar.

No Ordinary Shelter

All of the primates have heated indoor barns and outdoor enclosures they can access at any time. Over the next couple of weeks, the old barns are being replaced with brand new ones.

"The old barns were in need of an upgrade," Miller said. "We're excited that the new structures are utilizing completely green, recycled materials and technology. At the same time, they'll provide much improved capability to keep the animals cozy and their homes sanitary."

Chow Time

Epperson feeds the primates twice a day with fresh fruit and vegetables. She gives them their medicines and other treatments and makes sure they're safe and comfortable.

At midday, she gives them their "trail mix"—a mix of monkey chow, fiber sticks, raw nuts, dried fruit, air popped popcorn, and cheerios. The mix is broadcast across the grass in the different enclosures so the animals have to forage for it, as they would in the wild. Other enrichment activities include the use of puzzle feeders, requiring the animals to have to figure how to get to the food.

"It's not their native habitat, but we strive to create an environment that encourages them to do as they would naturally," Miller added.

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