OUR local zoo is not only home to animals such as large cats, giraffes and an array of beautiful birds, it also houses several monkey species, including our planet’s largest type—the mandrill.
The mandrills are native to rainforests of equatorial Africa. Not to be confused with apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, mandrills are classified as monkeys as they have tails. This world’s largest monkey species can reach weights of over 70 pounds.
Harold the mandrill is one of the more well-known monkeys at the zoo. Harold’s facial and rear-end colours are as bright as a rainbow, with shades of reds, blues and pinks. These vibrant colours are distinctive of adult male mandrills which are said to be the most colourful mammals on Earth.
Harold was born to mother Mary, the mandrill. Unfortunately, Mary abandoned her baby Harold at birth, perhaps because there were no other mandrill mothers as exemplars. She was not quite sure what to do with this little creature to which she had given birth. This is where staff stepped in.
Raising baby Harold was my first hands-on project and it was the most memorable. Weighing just about four pounds, I held the tiny and helpless baby in my arms. He looked directly in my eyes. Harold was the most amazing little animal I have ever seen! His eyes were bright and his face exhibited a tinge of pink and light blue. His little fingers held onto mine as if he knew I was now his mom.
Baby mandrills, like human babies, are dependent on their mother for food, shelter and protection. For the next few weeks, I experienced many sleepless nights as Harold needed to be bottle-fed every few hours. Watching this baby slowly fall asleep while grasping onto his nursing bottle was a priceless sight.
As precious as he was and just like other babies, there was poop and lots of it. Having him in my care all day and night, I needed to manage the mess. The solution—disposable diapers and they worked like a charm. However, putting on the diaper was no easy task as the energetic little one not only had grasping forelimbs but hind limbs as well.
Every day became an adventure with this little monkey. I began understanding his behaviours through his communication style of using facial gestures, vocalisations and body language. I learnt when he was comfortable, annoyed, tired, in a playful mood or up to mischief. This youngster would even grasp onto me, just as young mandrills would their mothers in the wild when moving through the forest. There was now a close bond between us which grew stronger as time progressed. It is difficult to put into words having seen this primate grow and develop right before my eyes.
Harold soon became an animal ambassador as part of an education programme to enlighten the public about monkeys and their importance to ecosystems. Boy, did Harold enjoy meeting families who visited. It was a perfect opportunity to relay the message that local monkeys, like the popular capuchins and red howlers, are protected by local wildlife laws and one should desist from keeping as pets.
As the months went by, Harold grew quickly in size. His canines grew longer and his strength increased. It was time for me to prepare him for life in his new zoo home.
I distinctly remember the day I placed Harold in his enclosure. He was quite familiar with the exhibit as we prepared for this day by getting him familiar with his new space from weeks prior. Harold was excited to swing on his ropes and jump onto the branches.
I saw the joy on his little monkey face. Although I was ecstatic to see him enjoy in his new home, little did he know, I was now heartbroken to be separated from the baby I helped raised. Tears filled my eyes - tears of both joy and sadness.
This year, Harold turned ten. He is now a full-grown mandrill and has developed all the vivid colours which are the signature of adult male mandrills. A beautiful part of this experience is that this now-grown animal still recognises me as his mother. He looks forward to my daily visits with his favourite treats. I would often look at him and I reminisce about all the heartfelt memories caring for this once-little monkey.
Over the years, I have observed a similar maternal instinct exhibited by my female colleagues as they cared for and nurtured many orphaned animals regularly basis. Having been a surrogate to baby Harold has not only been a most rewarding experience but a priceless one indeed.
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