Isaac's Story: Rhesus at Sanctuary Reveals Vivid Imagination

by Polly Schultz

When Isaac, a rhesus macaque, first arrived we were so worried about him. He cowered in the corner as he fear grimaced, and refused to eat or drink for several days. If anyone approached his cage, or if any other monkey even looked in his direction, he would engage in fear-based redirected behaviors, and would nervously attack the front of his cage, then quickly return to cower in the corner. He wouldn’t look at, let alone play with, any toys—treat filled or not. His behaviors were heartbreaking and very concerning.

Monkeys, like people, are all so very different. Some have great coping skills and can adapt to almost anything; some have great difficulty adapting to any change, good or bad. Poor Isaac didn’t seem to have any coping skills at all. He was an emotional mess!

Isaac is a sensitive “worrier” with very little self-esteem. He shows concern and a protectiveness for smaller, weaker monkeys (stuffed or otherwise) and he will nervously attempt to scold anyone or anything he thinks might be a threat to them. Yet he lacks the courage to stand up for himself against any perceived threat, or to follow through with any protective actions on behalf of his “weaker” friends.

We support Isaac through positive reinforcement training as he continues to develop confidence and adequate social skills he will need to thrive. And we are confident that one day he will become, perhaps not a king, but the happy, loyal and gentle friend to others he was born to be. After we spent many hours over many months gaining Isaac’s trust and helping him realize he had nothing to fear in his new home, he started progressing and has reached a comfort level where he is enjoying a better quality of life.

Using our introduction tunnels with safety barriers, we have put Isaac into pre-pairing trials with several other monkeys. After observing his behaviors and interactions during those times, we feel strongly that while he is not yet stable enough for full-contact pairing, at some point in the near future he likely will be able to pair successfully and enjoy companionship from another rhesus.

One day during feeding, we noticed Isaac carrying a tan stuffed monkey that had been on his ledge for weeks. As with all of the other enrichment toys we had provided, he had never before even looked at it, let alone touched it, or carried it around this way!

I watched in amazement as he carefully held it in his arms while he ate his breakfast. Then, when he was finished, he gently put the tan monkey’s ear in his mouth so he could use both hands to climb the chain link and return to his favorite ledge. Most monkeys wouldn’t have any problem holding an object in their hands while climbing, but Isaac has terribly crippled toes from lack of exercise during his many years as a research monkey. Having nonfunctioning toes, he depends primarily on his hands for climbing. When Isaac reached his favorite spot, he lip smacked at his stuffed buddy and began to groom its fur. He was so incredibly tender with it! He was vocal in a positive way for the first time since his arrival. I was so excited for him that he had found such joy and comfort in this stuffed monkey.

We named his stuffed monkey friend “Ook.” He carried it everywhere, never setting it down even for an instant. After several days, it became soiled. When we tried to remove it for washing, he became so stressed out and upset that we didn’t have the heart to take it. So we decided to find more of the same Ooks and somehow swap a clean one for the soiled one. We searched the internet for many days trying to find identical stuffed monkeys to the one he so adored. With the help of friends, we bought what was available. With a box full of Ooks, Isaac now had a backup supply of his favorite thing in life.

But a short time later, he decided that this companion and all of its identical cousins had committed some crime, broken some rule, or otherwise annoyed him and his new friend: a stuffed chimp (well, sort of a chimp… it has a long brown tail, so maybe it’s some sort of hybrid). But Isaac doesn’t care, he loves his newfound buddy even more than Ook, and to prove it, he scolds, slaps, challenges, and bites the now-discarded Ook and throws him from the ledge.

He does this to impress his new friend. How do we know this? Because while he’s pummeling his nemesis he quickly glances back toward his stuffed chimp to see if his friend is impressed. Then as soon as he throws Ook from the ledge, he comforts, grooms, and plays with his new buddy. Later, he retrieves the “reduced to pond scum” Ook from the floor and sets him toward the back of his ledge so he can impress his new friend again. He does this over and over. And while it is so incredibly funny, it’s much deeper! Yes, even though his companions are both stuffed animals, he is creating a social hierarchy within his group. He’s the alpha, his tailed chimp is directly beneath him, and, well, Ook better keep his mouth shut and just play dead.

It has become so apparent in watching Isaac interact with his two stuffed animals that he is imagining—like a human child with dolls who pretends the dolls are alive! I’ve never observed this before in the monkeys I’ve worked with for so many years. Or perhaps they have done this, and it just wasn’t as obvious to me as it has been with Isaac. Regardless, the more time I spend working with and observing these monkeys, the more I am amazed by their individual natures and by their emotional and mental capabilities!

Polly Schultz is the founder and director of OPR Coastal Primate Sanctuary in Longview, Washington, and coauthor of the AWI book Monkeys Don’t Wear Diapers.