Brooke Aldrich is the Campaigns Manager for Wild Futures, a charity dedicated to promoting primate conservation and welfare, and, through its flagship project, The Monkey Sanctuary, providing a safe home for primates that need rehabilitation, often due to their previous experiences as pets or circus performers. A large part of Wild Futures’ work, and therefore Brooke’s role, is in campaigning for the end of the trade in primates, and an end to their abuse in captive settings.
Brooke kindly took time out of her very busy schedule of campaigns, research and looking after the sanctuary’s residents to talk to us about why she works with primates, and why the work of Wild Futures is so crucial for welfare and conservation.
As do many children, Brooke loved monkeys as a kid, building up a big collection of cuddly monkey toys that she keeps to this day, and, along with her best friend, spending a lot of energy trying to convince their families that they were ‘half monkey’. She even wanted one as a pet, but her mother explained to her why that wouldn’t be very nice. Despite this, she says, she had no idea she would grow up and actually be able to study, work with, and help monkeys – especially not in the wild. Even though she grew up in a community of marine biologists and oceanographers, she didn’t make the connection between their work and what primatologists do, thinking that ‘monkey work’ was only for really lucky people from somewhere else.
After getting a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts, Brooke found herself a bit stuck; unable to survive as a painter, she ended up moving around the USA and working in bookshops, which, though enjoyable, left her wanting to find something that felt a bit more meaningful. Not having a lot of money to spend on travelling, she came upon volunteering as a cheap way to do it, and booked herself in for a three-week stint at the Monkey Sanctuary, which sounded ‘really interesting but too good to believe’. After her three weeks there, she spent a long time at a cat and dog sanctuary in Japan, but having fallen in love with the Sanctuary and its woolly monkey population already, cut short her time in Japan and returned to the UK, where she spent the better part of two years at the Monkey Sanctuary.
Those couple of years not only taught Brooke a lot, but made her feel not only that she could do it, but that she needed to do it – ‘something just clicked and felt right’. As much as she wanted to stay at the Sanctuary, it is hard to volunteer forever, so she left for a job at a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre in Texas, working with everything from primates to coyotes to pigeons. She bought all the textbooks she could afford, and read extensively about primates, eventually moving to the Netherlands to volunteer at Stichting Aap. After a few years, she became the “Assistent Aanspreekpunt” – like an assistant head keeper – in the primate department there, where huge numbers of Barbary macaques ended up as a result of the illegal pet trade. This, along with seeing Barbary macaques in the wild in Morocco and volunteering at El Centro de Primates Peñaflor in Chile, reinforced her desire to do something more to understand and help primates both in captivity and in the wild.
At this point, she was accepted into the MSc in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes University, a fantastic opportunity that opened a lot of doors for her: she has since been able to study the Critically Endangered San Martin titi monkey in Peru, been involved with the NGO Neotropical Primate Conservation (founded by Sam and Noga Shanee, two of her classmates at Brookes), and, to top it all, has been employed by the place that inspired it all for her – Wild Futures’ Monkey Sanctuary.
Brooke’s role at the sanctuary is split between the campaign work and being a keeper for the primates there, which can be very hard but also incredibly rewarding. “Working as a keeper strengthens my resolve to work hard on campaigns to protect primates from the immeasurable harm that the pet and entertainment trades do to primates all over theworld, every day.”
Though working closely with the monkeys is incredibly rewarding, and a privilege, Brooke echoes the sentiment of many other sanctuary staff we at the Handshake have met when she says that the day sanctuaries no longer need to be in business will be a good day indeed. “This really is true. You get to know them so well as individuals – their personalities are as unique as yours or mine, there is no doubt whatsoever about this. After a while, it’s clear that even the most well-adjusted, healthy monkey, given the highest standard of care possible, really just should not be there. They’re wild animals, and for me that is the whole point! Seeing monkeys in the wild in Asia, Africa and South America has only served to reinforce this position.”
So why don’t monkeys ever make good pets? Though she acknowledges that most primates are dangerous, this is not Brooke’s main motivation in fighting the primate pet trade. Primates are wild, not domesticated, animals. They are highly social, and to be in the proper social environment is fundamental to their wellbeing. They’ve adapted over countless years and generations to live in certain habitats, to eat certain foods. They are individuals, who clearly have a sense of what is going on around them. They recognize, and can be very frustrated, with the constraints of life in a cage. They suffer when they have little or no control over their own lives. One might argue that a captive-bred pet monkey “doesn’t know what he’s missing”, but Brooke is not so sure. “Knowing something about primate behaviour and getting to know individual monkeys well, it’s clear that they are aware that something’s not right in their environment!”
She is also certain that the existence of a legal trade in primates in places like the UK and the USA has a negative impact on wild populations. Perhaps the number of monkeys that are captured from the wild to feed these trades is minimal (though there is evidence that it happens), but there are other, less direct ways that this happens. One example of this is the Djmaa-el-Fna in Marrakech: an endless supply of young Barbary macaques is paraded around the square, performing and acting as photo props for the benefit of tourists who think monkeys are cute, unthreatening and unthreatened. Then there is the recent paper by Schroepfer et al which points out that the majority of wild-caught infant chimps illegally purchased in range countries are bought by expatriates “who likely have been primed by entertainment chimpanzees that appear as suitable pets.”
This principle is likely to apply elsewhere as well – who knows the impact that Ross and co. on Friends have had on the lives of monkeys? The Wild Futures staff often get people saying that they want a monkey “like the one on Friends“. People working in the field in numerous countries (including Panama, Peru, Indonesia and Morocco) have stated that our primate pet trades have an impact on people’s attitudes to wild primates in those regions.
Going back to where she began: as mentioned above, Brooke wanted a pet monkey very badly as a child, but her mother explained to her that they were wild animals, and needed to be with their own families, and in their own “homes” in order to be happy. At the time, her reaction was along the lines of “but I’d take really good care of the monkey! I’d be the monkey’s family!” and so on. As she grew up, she grew out of this way of thinking, but, unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have not. In discussion with people who keep or want to keep monkeys as pets, she says, it becomes pretty clear that nobody means to cause any harm; it’s more that they’ve generally refused, or been unable, to grow out of this childish, selfish way of thinking: that they are the exception, they will take really good care of their “babies”. They rarely allow themselves to see the damage they are causing – it is wilful ignorance.
The other thing that comes up regularly in discussion with pet monkey owners is their “right” to keep whatever animal they want. “When you get to this level of discussion with them, it goes no further. Ultimately, the monkey is seen as an object that can be possessed, over which a person can have legal ownership, like a car or a doll. I do not see it this way. They’re conscious, thinking, feeling individuals, and as such should be entitled to certain basic rights. To be possessed like a computer or a camera is not consistent with these rights.”
This brings us to the Wild Futures campaign. The campaign is not only about legislation – though there is a bill in parliament at the moment about banning the private keeping of primates in England, Scotland and Wales – it’s just as much about awareness. If people truly understood the issue, then very few of them would insist on keeping pet monkeys. “We need people to write to their MPs, asking for support for the bill. But we also need people to spread the word, educate their friends and families. If you know about a monkey being kept as a pet, let us know. Ask your local authority whether there are any monkeys in your area. Encourage them to ensure that the section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act (basically the five freedoms) is being met (you’d be surprised at how rarely this is the case). “Adopt” a monkey to help us carry on with our work. Give a friend a “keeper for a day” experience to the same effect! Don’t pay to see films featuring primate “actors”. Don’t have your photo taken with prop monkeys when traveling. There are all sorts of ways that you can adjust your behaviour that can help us protect primates. If you want to help in a more hands-on way, you could become an “ambassador” for Wild Futures (contact Hayley.Dann@wildfutures.org), or even come down and volunteer for us for a few weeks (email@example.com)!”
Though the Handshake staff have not had the same depth of experience with former pet primates as Brooke, we have visited many sanctuaries and have seen something of the effects of the primate trade on everything from chimpanzees to the Monkey Sanctuary’s own capuchins. We urge you to take Brooke’s words and experiences to heart and do everything you can to support, and spread the word about, Wild Futures’ work.
To do your bit for Wild Futures and the primates they care for:
- become an ambassador by contacting Hayley.Dann@wildfutures.org
- adopt a monkey at www.adoptamonkey.org
- volunteer at the Sanctuary – contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- write to your MP or sign the petition – http://www.wildfutures.org/support-our-campaign
Photo credits for this article: Brooke Aldrich and Petra Osterberg, Wild Futures.