Please read my post on the State of the Wild (WCS 2010). The white-headed langur like the Indo-Chinese tiger and other tiger subspecies has been driven to near extinction in-part because of wildlife trafficking. Traditional Chinese Medicine continues to promote the practice of zootherapy. Zootherapeutic agents include parts and derivatives of whole carcasses, tissues and byproducts of wildlife. There are approximately 100 white-headed langurs left in the wild. One subspecies occurs in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam and the other in Guangxi, China. This partially albinistic langur was considered a subspecies of Francois’ langurs as recently as 1995. One day I may share my experience with captive Francois’ langurs. If I had to pick a favorite Old World monkey, I might just pick Francois’ langurs.
I’m scheduled to give a talk to an audience at the Beardsley Zoo in Connecticut next month on topics relevant to ecological health and conservation medicine. These emerging field disciplines are popular right now, just as veterinary epidemiology has become a hot topic among interdisciplinary collection-based research programs. They are not just popular. These health science disciplines are vital areas for researching the implications of the human-wildlife interface in regions of the world where wildlife coexists closely with human populations.
While perusing wildlife health resources I realized that I missed some recent epizootics or at least notable reports of disease outbreaks in wildlife. The Wildlife Conservation Society just released some news regarding the cause of a 2007-2008 die-off among two of the 9 extant species of howler monkeys. Altogether 59 monkeys in northeastern Argentina succumbed to this arbovirus (arthropod-borne virus) some of which were a subspecies of brown howler monkeys (Alouatta guariba). Although found in relatively high densities even in fragmented habitat, hunting and disease have impacted otherwise sustainable populations of these large leaf-eating monkeys.
Jungle Yellow Fever refers to the sylvatic or wild life cycle which persists with in New World monkey populations in forest habitat. The acute viral hemmorhagic disease which has it’s origins in Africa is also now endemic in Latin America. Infected Old World primates are typically asymptomatic, but the virus takes it’s toll on the more susceptible Central and South American primates which have not co-evolved with the disease. Aedesspp. mosquitoes serve as vectors of this viral pathogen and if they feed on unvaccinated populations of humans, the disease is easily transmitted and may persist in “urban” transmission cycles.
Yellow fever refers to the jaundice that affects some human patients. The disease, if not treated, can be lethal. As people continue to encroach upon wild lands and deforestation rates increase in tropical regions, the potential for the sylvatic disease transmission cycle to evolve into an intermediate and/or urban transmission cycle becomes increasingly likely. As people and monkeys increasingly attempt to co-exist, threats to human health from Yellow Fever will persist without the intervention of immunization and mosquito control programs. Yellow fever exemplifies a human health risk that can be assessed and addressed though surveillance programs targeted at wild primates. In this case brown howler monkey populations which are already threatened by human activities serve as indicators of disease outbreaks in areas inhabited by humans.
Some zoos in Latin America, including facilities in Belize warn people not to purchase monkey as pets, mentioning several reasons, one of which is concern over diseases like Yellow Fever. Yellow fever like all arboviruses is considered a zoonotic disease because the transmission cycle involves insect vectors and people. However, no direct transmission occurs between primates and people.
According to ISIS the only pair of brown howler monkeys (Alouatta guariba guariba – Northern Brown Howler) in captivity (on record) are housed at the Fundacao Zoo-Botan. de Belo Horizonto. I believe the animal photographed above is a red howler monkey.
In my recent post on celebrity menageries I mentioned the fate of Pablo Escobar’shippopotamus herd. I had no premonition that the New York Times would address this topic in a much more compelling piece than what I provided, much less a few days later. It’s merely a timely coincidence. I applaud the director of the sanctuary featured in the article for taking in so many animals that were confiscated or in need of a good home. It’s a lot of dedication that often goes unrecognized.
But I also want to commend zoos, aquariums, and marine parks for displaying imperfect specimens. This wasn’t always the case. If you have worked with free-ranging wildlife you may consider any animal in a zoo to be fairly close to meeting the criteria for a perfect physical specimen. Many of them are. They don’t all bare the wounds of battle from aggressive conflicts with con-specifics, predators, or even prey that managed to inflict some damage. Many of the animals that I have seen in the wild have scars to prove that indeed they live there. In particular, I think of wild sea lions. From studying activity budgets of California sea lions hauled out just meters away on a rookery in the Sea of Cortez (Baja, California Sur) or from sailing by a colony of Steller sea lions near Benjamin Island (Southeast, AK), I would be hard-pressed to say that I’ve seen an adult or subadult animal that would meet the criteria of a perfect specimen by historic standards. It always surprises me a bit when patrons take pause at the sight of an animal that may well have been injured. In fact, when I think about it, I’ve probably witnessed just as many wild sea lions that have been branded for research studies as I have seen that have not been. Branding was a common and safe practice for marking wild animals for census work and demographic studies. I couldn’t imagine a branded animal on exhibit, but maybe there are some.
Today, zoos are very candid, often sharing this kind of information regarding research and clinical case work with the public. Living institutions treat these issues with more tact and sensitivity than ever before. It’s amazing how we can genuinely shape perception if concerns are addressed thoughtfully. It’s effective micro-crisis management.
I remember watching an Allen’s swamp monkey at the San Diego Zoo. Among this fascinating troop of guenon monkeys was a female with a juvenile. She was obviously missing a limb, but was able to get along just fine and tend to her parental responsibilities. In the background visitors were sharing their sentiments and most appreciative of the zoo for providing information about this individual animal’s health status. As I recall, one of the zoo’s interpretive graphics conveyed the message that just like people animals are imperfect. It was quite refreshing verbiage, and almost touching. Instead of eliciting great concern, cause for alarm, or unnecessary speculation, the language provided an explanation and message that was well-received by the guests. I thought this was very nicely done.
I think it is important to share with people that there is nothing wrong with animal ambassadors in captive facilities that fall short of perfection. They may better represent their wild counterparts and perhaps they convey to the public that although they may be different, they are offered great care and attention just like every other animal in the zoo collection.
Taxidermists, collection managers or curators at museums of natural history may speak of perfect specimens. Likewise researchers in systematics and taxonomy may also place value on perfect specimens, but not for purely aesthetic reasons. They may have studied newly described species or been working with various biological types (e.g., holotypes) as referenced by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
Their objectives are more likely aimed at providing reference data for scholarly publications (for the benefit of colleagues working with related taxa) and teaching.
I don’t know that I’m not smart enough to understand all the implications of these rigorous experimental studies of ape cognition. Metacognition research is supposed to elucidate how higher vertebrates understand, control, and manipulate their own cognitive processes. At the same time it begs the question if the readership demographic most suited to utilize the information finds the study palatable and transferable. I know that it took me some time to process, and probably some time for others who are not always current on scholarly work in this particular area. And some might suggest that anecdotal information has already confirmed this as far as some are concerned.
When I worked with greater and lesser apes as a keeper (all but bonobos), I was more interested in the anecdotal data that I could relate to- information that could help me enhance enrichment programs for animals displayed for public education in the confines of a zoological park, and not in the context of highly controlled laboratory studies. By no means do I dismiss the importance of these studies, as they contribute to document our knowledge of “executive functioning” in animals and teach us much about their potential to interact with con-specifics and their captive environment.
With that said, I relied on my supervisors credentialed or not, with years of experience working with great apes everyday to learn how apes think. Whose to say what is more appropriate or not. Perhaps we should defer to a combination of resources. With the exception of Gordon Gallup’s work, I don’t know if I would perform as well as the apes do in these studies, much less understand it’s significance. I’m curious as to how this science trickles down to those who are in a position to ultimately apply what was learned for the benefit of the animals. This is not my field and there may be a very clear answer. At the same time it would be selfish to assert that this contribution to science is not of benefit if it is not directly applicable to zoo work. I have not read the original article, but likely their intention is to reach a much broader audience of scholars and behavioral practitioners.
I’ve worked on some unrelated studies that have absolutely no application to animal welfare or health, but at the onset they seemed like there was potential for some practical application. I guess you never know.