By Vicky Shoemaker
I have had monkeys for 12 years. We started with Kirsty who came from a dirty old livestock auction. We were there to buy saddles for resale (we’d tried to buy and sell horses but that was too depressing – a good home does not always mean a good home and “sound” doesn’t always mean healthy!). I never forgot the monkey I’d met when I was small and dreamed of having one “just like that one” (ha). I couldn’t get hubby to bid – I’d just got him used to dogs and horses! The guy who was selling Kirsty passed because he could only get $50 (I said it was an old dirty livestock auction – what do cowboys want with a monkey? – kidding cowboys!) This gave me time to talk hubby into a new adventure. We got Kirsty (who we thought was “Kirby” at the time) for what we had in our pockets – $80. We had no idea what monkeys sold far and this was hard times for us. I can assure you that if we’d known what it costs to keep a monkey, hubby never would have gone for it! ha Kirsty was sweet as could be until we went to put her in the back of the truck (hubby wouldn’t go for putting him/her in the front with us). Well, first thing Kirsty did was to give hubby a few good bites. Hubby was fit to be tied but we got Kirsty in the camper. I think this was the first time he’d ever been bitten by an animal – at least, the first in a long time. She was all bones so we stopped at a store and bought her a carrot cake which she “inhaled”. Now that we know about monkeys I realize that it is amazing that she didn’t take lots of opportunities to escape. I can only think that this was our fate and nothing was going to change it. On the romantic side maybe Kirsty knew who we really were before we ever did! We weren’t sure what was underneath the pillow case corners that were attached to her hands by rubber bands but when we finally looked the next day, we were horrified. Kirsty had gangrene on many of her fingers and the flesh was eating away to expose bone. I couldn’t believe she was not screaming in pain but she wasn’t. This was a weekend but we set out on our search for a vet – rude awakening in a long list of obstacles … finding a vet who will see primates. The first we called told us he would confiscate it and give it over for experiments (I kid you not). I realize now what he was up to but I will never forgive him. We’d explained the situation and I know he thought we had gone to an exotic auction and purchased a monkey. The thing is that a monkey could have died because of him. I realize he felt it was better off dead than being a pet but he shouldn’t advertise to seeing exotics if that is how he feels. Anyway, we finally found a vet (2 hours away) and he fixed Kirsty’s hands. He had to remove a few finger parts but after 10 days her hands looked great compared to what had been there. This vet led us to The Simian Society of America, thank goodness. We learned the correct diet, health, environment, etc. The weird “fate” deal was that a few months earlier a friend of my sister had a cage to sell (cheap) and we’d bought it. Turned out they’d had a capuchin monkey for years but lost him. The cage was sitting empty so when they heard we liked animals they thought we might have a need for it. We got it planning to put “whatever” in it – never planning to put a monkey.
The thing is that many of the people we were meeting humanized their monkeys and I thought that was just great. Kirsty took right to it so I taught her to do all kinds of things – she even used the toilet. I kept her diapered and dressed, brushed her teeth, filed her nails – anything I asked of her she complied with little resistance (a couple squawks at most). This went on for about 3 good years. Everyone kept praising me and telling me how smart and sweet she was and how lucky I was. Few told me this might change. I chose to listen to the ones telling me she was special and I had “the touch”. The only one who wasn’t listening was Kirsty. She started out slow – a nip here and a nip there. I was told this was maturity but she might get past it. I had to take control. I did. I even bit her back once or twice – I was an open vessel taking in anything and everything I was told. I’d try anything. Biting back worked for a couple months. She thought twice before biting me again! I was in control. When she decided to bite me again I held her arms where she couldn’t move. This, too, worked for a few months – it was pitiful how she would Beg me to let her go promising never to do a bad thing again. I’d let go and she’d jump away squawking. I’d give her a spider monkey “scrunch face” and she’d fly into my arms and we’d “kiss kiss”- her offering her chin for me to kiss or touching my lips with hers. Again, I was in control.
At this time we were still taking Kirsty around people. She didn’t bite us often and at this time we were not fully aware of laws or dangers involved. Again, we were just lucky. Kirsty did bite my Mom once but other than that she only bit us. After a few more months Kirsty started attacking me – the first time surprised me so much that she really chewed my hands up good before I got a grip on her and held her to the ground. Of course, I was alone so I hurried and called hubby and told him I was full of blood. Kirsty had attacked me because the diaper tape had stuck to her hair and when I pulled it off she thought I knew I was pulling her hair! This attack damaged nerves in my hand and left some wonderful scars on my hands and arms. I wouldn’t touch Kirsty for days – I couldn’t move my hands much anyway. Once the wounds began to heal I began to excuse the attack and blame myself. It had to be that I Had done something wrong because Kirsty was special and I’d trained her so well. At this time I was warned about monkey attacks but it fell on deaf ears – I would avoid that kind of situation and now I Knew What the signs were and would back off ahead of time. Kirsty has always had a tie to my brain since day one so I should not be surprised that she knew exactly what my plan was. The next attack she didn’t give Any warnings. I excused it again as something I did wrong and tended my wounds. I was given lots of good tips on holding her down, hollering at her, staring her down, tying her short, etc. At this time I was also watching lots of documentaries on monkeys in the wild and reading every single primate book I could find – old and new. I was going to prove how great I was and how special Kirsty would be. I even planned to teach her sign language – the first to learn with only 4 fingers per hand (and some of them partial fingers at that).
Well, Kirsty’s attacks became more unpredictable, more vicious and more often. I’d get a handle on it for a while and avoid bites by grabbing her and she’d get attacks in by catching me completely off guard. It became a battle of wits. Her routine was to come inside at night to be our “baby” and go outside to be with the other two older spiders in the day (a cage butted up to theirs). I had evolved into being against alterations and for letting her choose what life she wanted. We’d taken in two older monks so she would have company of her own kind. She took well to the routine and it was working out fine for all of us until… one morning it was too cold for her to go out so I had to put another diaper on and put her back in the inside cage. She was a bit confused but complied. She would ask when she wanted her diaper changed so I thought nothing when a couple hours later she was asking to “go potty”. I took her to the potty and while she used it I went outside to see if it had warmed up enough. Nope – I came in and told her and replaced her diaper. I went to put her back in her cage, she gave me a “kiss kiss” and was headed in her cage as I was shutting the door. It’s like people who have had a bad wreck – I don’t remember much and can only speculate. Next I remember is that I was holding her to the floor and I was seeing more blood on myself than I’d ever seen. My hand was swollen to about twice it’s size and throbbing. Kirsty was screaming at the top of her lungs and so was I. I was in shock for the most part and I think she was too. I cannot tell you how I was able to grab her or exactly how long the attack was. All I know is that I looked down at her face, my hand and the situation. I took a few moments to remember what I had been doing – NOTHING. I was putting her intoher cage and she had just kissed me sweetly (now I feel her “kiss kiss” was not love but appeasement).
At that moment I saw that I had been ignoring Kirsty’s will to continue with my own will. I kept saying that I was giving her a choice but was I? I was afraid of her as I held her down but something snapped in my head and I let her go – this was not at all what I wanted for either of us. Fights with blood ending with me holding her down and insisting I win. When I let go she jumped across the room and barked at me. If I looked her way she would threaten me. I thought, “I have to get that diaper off” (funny how the mind works). Then I came back to reality. I got her a bowl of food, Led her outside to her cage by the other monks, where she went willingly, and I closed the door. She was full of happy squeals as she ran to the other two monks. She even came and offered me a kiss kiss. I took this opportunity to try to remove the blasted diaper – well, had there not been wire …I realized she was fully capable of removing the blasted thing herself and I left her to it – didn’t take her long either. I came in and cleaned up my hands and arms and the floor. I called hubby and told him that he would have to build Kirsty a heat box and that I was not going to dress her, diaper her or force her to do anything ever again. It took hubby a few days to build the heat box so he would bring Kirsty in and out with no problem. I would hug and kiss her through the wire but wouldn’t mess with her – actually I couldn’t anyway because these wounds were the worst ever and my hands were staying very swollen and sore. I “stitched” the wounds myself with surgical tape because I didn’t want to go to the hospital. Since then Kirsty has been a very happy outside monkey and I have been happy with my decision. I miss her and sometimes I wish I could go in with her – and probably will some day – but I am not over the wounds. Every time I hit my thumb it feels just like the attack is just happening – nerves were damaged.
Chapter 6 – “Summary”
All my experience with Kirsty is what molded who I am and how I feel today – that is why I sign everything For Love Of Kirsty. It reminds me to keep her first and foremost in my mind no matter what. In these 12 years I’ve been able to meet lots of people in different aspects of primate care. I have been able to get “close” to some sanctuaries and walk in their shoes a bit. I have helped to place many “X-pets” in homes and sanctuaries and I have tried to learn whatever I can from every situation. I am in kinship with Tim M. in that I never stop learning and never profess to be closed to new experiences and ideas. I am very opinionated on some subjects but still open to hearing other sides. I am open about where I started, where I am now and why. I am this way because that is all I have to offer. I grew up with a love and respect for animals and it evolved over the years. I have done most of my changing since we brought home that little spider monkey we named Kirsty. Now she, and three other spider monkeys, teach us about life every single day. I wouldn’t trade not one single second of it – and that does include the attacks that I probably learned the most from. Would Kirsty attack now? Honestly, I think it would take a lot for her to attack me. We have kept our same loving relationship through wire and because of that I do not agree with those who claim a life behind bars is a jail sentence. Anyone who has been around monkeys for some time learns to tell when a monkey is happy, neurotic or miserable and my monkeys are happy. They know what they know. Because three of them are 20, 25 and 30, I can imagine that they may have seen a jungle at some time (I honestly think Kirsty, the youngest, was smuggled but on proof except that the injuries came from chicken wire). I try to provide cages with enrichment that can give them happy lives. They have each other and they have me, my husband and other animals. If I didn’t think their life was good I would not keep them. I feel they are safe and happy in our loving arms. Would I like to be able to hold all my monkeys without the fear of attack – yes. But, above that I respect their right to speak and most situations bring out their instinct to attack. Kirsty has been loose once since the last attack and she sat in our laps with no problems. We did not force anything on her and she was very careful that we did not grab her. Dirkie and Buttons have escaped once – I stayed away for the most part but was attacked by Dirkie (my own fault). I am 43 years old and not the healthiest of people in the world so I don’t need any more wounds and/or scars because of my hard-headedness. Tomasina (20+) is our only inside monkey. She is partially blind with other ailments that keep her dependent on us. She does visit Near the others so they can talk but the others try to injure her because of her disabilities – even through wire. She wants to love on the other monks and they want to hurt her. The experience never ends because every year is different in some way. We’d also taken in two capuchins from a friend who ran into some of life’s unexpected events (divorce) but lost them to freak deaths. We necropsied the female only to find that Nothing showed up except maybe “shock” marks on her tongue. Since there was NO electricity anywhere near we can only speculate that maybe lightening struck. We’ll never know for sure. I feel we do have a right to keep animals of all kinds. I feel we should have guidelines to see to it that we do it correctly and that we know what we are getting into for the future. I have a strong personal opinion that we do not have the right to alter them to make them what we want them to be – I feel if they rebel then they are saying they do not want it. I do not condemn people with other feelings on that and can still love them. I am always open to new ideas on the matter but for 12 years I still hold strong to that opinion. Some people feel I should not tell my “attack” stories because those against private ownership might use them against us but that is another area where I have had to weigh the odds and make my own choice. Yes, the possibility exists that someone somewhere will say – “See, monkeys can hurt people” but everyone in their right mind knows that anyway. I tell my stories so that people will be aware and more prepared than I was. I see too many people giving up because they think they have failed when the monkey doesn’t comply anymore. I want these people to understand that it is not anything they did wrong and that it can be worked through with patience and respect for the wildness that still exists in these beautiful creatures. I want people to know that a monkey in a cage is not a jail sentence for the monkey or the people who love them unless it is done incorrectly. That’s why I speak.
FOR LOVE OF KIRSTY
By Vicky Shoemaker, 1990
When I am older and change my ways
Will you still love me?
If I get tired of hearing you gripe
And my way to cope is to give a fierce bite,
Will you still love me?
Today I’m cute and cuddly and sweet
My manners just perfect, not easy to beat,
But tomorrow may change things; I might be mad
I might spend the day atrociously bad.
You won’t understand a thing that I do
As your sweet little babe turns you black and blue.
My eyes will be distant, not easy to read.
The one I love most had better take heed.
My thought for today will be “I am myself…
I don’t have to be the pet up on a shelf”.
I won’t have to listen to what I am told…
That’s not my nature and today I am bold.
Sure, you are bigger, five times my size,
But I am a monkey, my instincts a prize.
The next day I love you and do all things right
As you doctor the wounds received in our fight.
I won’t understand why you seem so upset
And don’t want to play so my needs are met.
When I am older and change my ways
Will you still love me?