Primate People


Primate People features undercover agents, scholars, and researchers; sanctuary founders and grassroots lobbyists fighting vivisection or seeking to protect vital habitat. Authors work in Malaysia, Spain, Thailand, England, Wales, South Africa, Colombia, Denmark, the United States, and Indonesia with baboons, woolly monkeys, capuchins, gibbons, gorillas, macaques, owl monkeys, lemurs, lorises, De Brazza’s monkeys, chimpanzees, and spider monkeys. The authors of Primate People introduce readers to the antics and pleasures, idiosyncrasies, sufferings and fears of nonhuman primates, and they explain how humans, usually out of ignorance and sometimes in unexpected ways, endanger and harm these vulnerable individuals—and how each of us can help.

Primate People is divided into three parts: Part I, “Foundations,” introduces primates from around the world, focusing on key problems threatening the lives of primates and devastating their communities, including the entertainment and pet industries, logging and the bushmeat trade, and habitat destruction caused by human dietary choices. Part II, “Research,” as the name indicates, exposes the cruel exploitation of nonhuman primates in research facilities. Part II, “Sanctuaries,” carries readers to sanctuaries around the world, where activists lobby for change, educate communities, and care for the world seemingly unending supply of displaced nonhuman primates.

Part I: Foundations

“Primates are many and wondrous, yet few and endangered. Everywhere they live, they have been crowded out of diminishing forests, hunted for food or medicine, captured for the lucrative pet/tourist trade, and either kidnapped or bred for science.” Introduction to Primate People

Primate Basics

The first essay, written by field primatologist Linda Wolfe, introduces primate basics, charting the evolutionary history of primates and their social systems, allowing reflection as to where human beings fit into the primate family.

“Chimpanzees, who are classified as apes, are our closest relatives. They are considered genetically closer to human beings than to any other primate.” Linda Wolfe in Primate People

International Primate Conservation:
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

Birgith Sloth is a Danish biologist with thirty-one years of experience working in conservation and seventeen years as head of the office of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species(CITES) in Denmark, where she enforces CITES throughout the European Union. Sloth describes her challenging work defending and enforcing CITES on behalf of nonhuman primates and other endangered species.

“Customs officers too often find primates with their heads wired to prevent them from screaming, wrapped up and hidden in carry-on luggage in an attempt to conceal their presence.” Birgith Sloth in Primate People

Friends of the Earth Malaysia

Phaik Kee Lim, author of the second essay, works with a Malaysian conservation organization to “correct problems affecting humans, nonhumans, and the environment.” She describes the plight of primates in Malaysian circuses, resorts, and zoos and highlights the ongoing illegal trafficking of endangered wildlife, including orangutans and gorillas, across international borders—despite CITES. With a pen that calls for change, she exposes orangutans forced to perform frivolous tricks, gorillas kidnapped from their homelands, and macaques devalued as pests. Reflecting on twenty-five years of activism, Lim writes, “Nonhumans are always at the mercy of humans.”

“If we do not understand what our money causes, if we do not understand the inevitable suffering that results from paying entrance fees, buying animal products, and choosing what we will eat and wear, then animal exploitation will continue . . . for food, clothing, and entertainment.” Phaik Kee Lim in Primate People

Looking Up, Counting Down

Noga and Sam Shanee implicate big government and big industry—especially animal agriculture—in shoving these obstreperous primates into the abyss of extinction. They established a conservation organization in La Esperanza, Peru, where they work with locals—especially churches—to turn the tide for these cheeky inhabitants of the Brazilian rain forest. The Shanees demonstrate the importance of gaining a local perspective and the need for on-site action. They also encourage readers think about how their daily choices affect primates on distant continents.

“Unlike other primates and in spite of the fact that woolly monkeys are hunted in many areas, they have not developed a fear of humans. When they hear people, either walking quietly in the forests or loudly parading through the jungles, they come to investigate what is happening. First they show their complete disapproval of human existence in their territories by screaming and mooning the visitors with their tufts. After a minute or two, when they see that we are not impressed, they go back to their business of eating and monkeying around, but mostly they watch us. Apparently we are very interesting creatures, and they study us carefully.” Noga and Sam Shanee in Primate People

International Primate Protection League:
A Wonderful Life

No one could have guessed how a few tiny stumptailed macaques, peeking piteously out of a cage at the Bangkok International Airport, would change Shirley McGreal’s life—and improve the hopes of primates around the world. On seeing those frightened eyes McGreal tracked down a ring of smugglers stealing baby gibbons from Thailand’s jungles and sending them to Singapore, where they were redirected across the ocean to California laboratories. In her quest for justice, McGreal exposed and destroyed the “Singapore Connection,” an illegal transport route that landed Thailand’s primates in U.S. labs, all of which led McGreal to establish the International Primate Protection League (IPPL), where decades later, she continues to work tirelessly on behalf of primates.

“He had suffered twice from dysentery, twice from pneumonia, and had twice lost 10 percent of his body weight for unknown reasons. He had been raised alone with only a swinging wire surrogate as his mother. He weighed merely half of what a normal baby gibbon would weigh. We were amazed that he had survived. The most striking thing about Arun Rangsi was his huge, shining brown eyes.” Shirley McGreal in Primate People

Part II: Research

Paper Lives

Having studied animal experimentation for twenty years —behind the curtain—Budkie’s disgust and dismay for the cruelty and indifference of the industry is palpable. Michael Budkie has meticulously reviewed “tens of thousands” of cryptic records describing the physical actions and reactions of “research” monkeys, such as, “still overdosing on current drug dosage, ataxic, hypersalivating, disoriented” and “ripping hair from the armpit area and chewing on the fur, each time he would grab a tuft of fur he would vocalize.”

“I can never forget that each one of the thousands of pieces of paper that I have read—documents detailing the horror of animal experimentation—actually describes the life of an individual.” Michael Budkie in Primate People


As an undercover investigator, Matt Rossell worked in a lab at a primate research center that held twenty-five hundred primates. Ostensibly he was hired to provide enrichment for caged macaques with the stated goal of easing “abnormal” behavior (which he found to be normal among lab primates). His essay offers a chilling view inside a primate research facility and reminds us of the innumerable individuals who suffer and die in these stainless-steel facilities: He writes that for “human primates, isolation is considered one of the worst forms of torture. In research labs, isolation is just indifferent efficiency.”

“After 16162 got used to our presence, she reached timidly between the bars to manipulate the mirror. She held the disk gingerly in her hands, then pulled the mirror halfway into the cage to observe herself with intense concentration, moving the makeshift mirror with slight corrections to broaden her perspective on her dank, concrete-walled surroundings.” Matt Rossell in Primate People

Monkeys, Malaria, and My Work in Miami

Juan Pablo Perea-Rodriguez of Colombia explores the motivation and practices of a notorious Colombian scientist, Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, and exemplifies alternative methods. In Florida, where he works, humans respect other primates and consider science only a byproduct of their primary role as caretakers and protectors of individuals and habitats; researchers use noninvasive methods to educate the public about primates and their habitat.

“Other studies required us to stay up all night to observe nocturnal behavior. . . . During these intense night observations, I was gifted with a rare sight—the birth of an owl monkey” Juan Pablo Perea-Rodriguez in Primate People

Learning from Macaques

Anthropologist and primatologist Linda Wolfe transports us to field research in India and Japan, where Wolfe observed macaques. Reflecting on her work, Wolfe writes, “Once I came to appreciate the mental capacities of nonhuman primates, I became aware of other animals generally and viewed all creatures in a new light?”

“He appeared to have two broken arms or perhaps broken shoulder blades. He could not walk or put pressure on his arms and could barely even raise an arm to eat. In his time of need, his mother started to care for him again. He rode awkwardly on her back, holding on with one hand. Hajime’s mother protected him from his playmates and made sure he got enough to eat, though he ate slowly. Eventually he healed, thanks to the special care of his mother.” Linda Wolfe in Primate People

The Winding Path to Where I Stand:
Becoming a Primatologist

Ethologist and primate behaviorist Debra Durham was excited about working in a primate laboratory, but on arrival, quickly realized that all was not right with the little motherless macaques and baboons clinging desperately to surrogate mothers. She fed, watered, measured, weighed, and cuddled these unhappy babies until her conscience forced her out of the lab and back to college. As a graduate student, she traveled to Madagascar to study lemurs in the field. The more Durham learned, the more she understood the injustice of exploiting primates in laboratories.

“Both were forced subjects of invasive brain experiments. Both had holes cut in their skulls that were fitted with metal guide tubes. The tubes held electrodes that were inserted into their brains during experiments to study brain activity. Patrick and Brigit also had bolts drilled into their skulls and a metal coil implanted in one eye. Four or five days each week, these individuals were strapped into a chair in full-body restraint with their heads bolted in place.” Debra Durham in Primate People

Part III: Sanctuaries

“Other primates are people, and people are primates. Each is a unique individual; each is legitimately the subject of moral concern.” Introduction to Primate People

Born to Be Wild:
Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary

The first few essays in Part III focus on the founders of primate sanctuaries. In the first essay, Barbara Cox tells the story of Kari Bagnall, founder of a Florida sanctuary for Central and South American primates, walking readers through the misguided moments that carry primates from freedom and health into the unwitting arms of ill-suited human homes, and then—if they are among the few who are lucky—to sanctuaries. Bagnall’s unhappy little primate destroyed her relationship and bit Bagnall’s visitors. Failing to grasp the core problem, Bagnall purchased Charlotte, a “sister,” and the two youthful capuchins set to destroying the house. Eventually she got the picture, and having unwittingly contributed to an ongoing problem, Bagnall accepted long-term responsibility for her adopted primates. . . and many others, by creating a sanctuary.

“When they reach pubescence, monkeys rebel much as human adolescents do. Only their means of expression differ. Human teenagers shout and slam doors; monkeys scratch and bite. And, unlike most humans, they don’t leave their wild ways behind when they grow older.” Barbara Cox in Primate People

Loving and Learning

From the loss of her own newborn son to the moment she first sang with a gibbon, Deborah Misotti healed alongside damaged and exploited primates. Her essay distinguishes between a sanctuary (“a place of refuge or asylum,” where residents are not owned, harassed, or exploited) and capitalistic enterprises posing as sanctuaries. Misotti, founder of a Florida sanctuary that provides lifelong care to victims of the trade in primates as pets, research laboratories, and/or breeding facilities, asserts the rights of gibbons to live “without the constraints of human greed, ownership, and intrusion.”

“Chi Chi came to us from a breeding facility where she was constantly producing babies, yet never allowed to be a mother. Her babies were sold to private owners, other breeders, laboratories, and zoos. A gibbon baby usually sells for ten to twenty thousand dollars. . . . Breeders care about gibbons for only one reason—their babies. Gibbons are the only monogamous nonhuman primates: both parents nurture and raise their infant—if given the opportunity to do so. Chi Chi had never been given a companion to live with, and she had never been allowed to raise and tend her young.” Deborah Misotti in Primate People

Some Baboons in My CARE:
Saba, Einstein, George Bush, Nathan, Snare-Boy, Tripsy, and Giovanni

In spite of Rita Miljo’s ongoing efforts to increase local awareness, baboons are considered vermin in South Africa and can be exterminated with guns, traps, or poison (“IPPL Members” 2006, 5). Miljo, founder of South Africa’s Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education takes us with her through some of the inevitable but agonizing life-and-death decisions that she must make on behalf of baboons who come to her from research labs, from businesses and as orphans who, though released into the wild, never seem willing to forget their human caretaker.

“Saba was one of our abused residents. She arrived some twenty years ago, a frightened young girl who had been welded into a forty-five-gallon drum. Her keepers left a small hole at the top so they could throw food in and a hole at the bottom so a witchdoctor could harvest her feces for muti (witchcraft medicine). In her misery and despair—living in this small drum—she had mutilated her arms with her teeth. I cannot even think what horrors she experienced.” Rita Miljo in Primate People

A Veterinarian with Conviction

The final essay about a primate sanctuary founder is written by a Spanish sanctuary veterinarian, Karmele Llano Sanchez. She worked with primates in Venezuela and Holland before cofounding a primate center in Indonesia, where she specializes in rehabilitation and release of macaques and lorises. Sanchez writes of damage done by local and international markets for exotic pets, research, delicacy dishes, and the development of palm plantations. She explains what happens to lorises in the Indonesian pet industry and describes her veterinary efforts on behalf of these unfortunate victims of consumer ignorance and capitalism. Sanchez details the costs inherent in running a sanctuary and describes some of her patients, including an orangutan with a fractured skull and a newborn gibbon with a raging fever.

“Not surprisingly, when Bintang arrived, he was very sick with a high fever. Consequently, he was the first orangutan to spend the night with me. Of course, I hardly slept because I was worried about Bintang; I kept waking up to make sure that he was still breathing. For two months, his fever raged until he finally succumbed. We figured out why he was sick just before he died: tuberculosis. . . . We could do nothing but offer him companionship in his last moments; the ill effects of human negligence were more than his little body could handle..” Karmele Llano Sanchez in Primate People

Volunteering in Thailand:
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project

Most of us will never found a sanctuary but we might follow in the footsteps of Fiona Mikowski, who volunteered at a gibbon rehabilitation facility in Thailand. Mikowski vividly portrays the life of a volunteer in Thailand “living in extreme humidity in the midst of an unforgiving rainy season thick with mosquitoes, cockroaches, frogs, and snakes,” especially the daily chores of rehabilitation and the thrill of watching sanctuary residents move from life in a cage back to their rightful homes in the jungle.

“Though living in extreme humidity in the midst of an unforgiving rainy season thick with mosquitoes, cockroaches, frogs, and snakes, I loved my time at the GRP. When I first arrived, I was mystified by the sound of gibbons singing. Now—back home—I miss this sound terribly. We must all take responsibility to ensure that this remarkable music of the rain forest does not disappear forever.” Fiona Mikowski in Primate People

Friends Are the Family We Choose

Paula Muellner was giddy with excitement when she drove across the U.S. to take up her new post at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Oregon, but when she arrived, the chimpanzees spit water at her and flung “meticulously prepared” smoothies back in her face. After months of food throwing, the chimpanzees slowly began to invite her to play and groom. Herbie eventually took a shine to Muellner . . . little did he know that she was only a temporary caretaker. Muellner reflects on the depth of emotions expressed by nonhuman primates and the moral concerns and complications of taking a temporary position working with primates that form deep and lasting bonds. On leaving, she writes, “I had broken the circle of trust that I had worked so hard to build.”

“When I turned to look at him, he ever so slightly shifted his attention to his water bottle—as if exhausted by his grand display of aggression—and took a swig. ‘Success,’ I thought to myself; ‘I am making progress!’ It was at this moment that Topo—his aim honed from years of practice—doused me with his water, squirting it from his puckered lips like a miniature fire hose. In that moment, I realized that gaining the trust of these cousins of mine—let alone their friendship—was not going to be easy.” Paula Muellner in Primate People

¡Comejenes y Terremotos!
(Termites and Earthquakes!)

A zoologist skilled in the care of primates, Keri Cairns flew from the United Kingdom to Peru to tend the primate residents and build an additional enclosure. He tells how he befriended a large adult male woolly monkey, Apu, whose teeth could easily shred and kill a human being. Cairns reminds that, whether we are teachers, engineers, architects, writers—or just plain handy with a few tools—our skills can help with animal advocacy.

“She returned with photos of smoked woolly monkeys—entire colonies—openly for sale. The police were present but did not take any action against this illegal activity. Even more shocking, these markets were selling live baby monkeys alongside the tables of smoked meat.” Keri Cairns in Primate People


Helen Thirlway writes about Singe, a pudgy, disillusioned De Brazza monkey whom she met while working at a sanctuary in Ireland. Singe had spent twenty long years lounging on overstuffed furniture and eating junk food before her humans abandoned their living acquisition. Thirlway was given the task of trying to bring a bit of joy into Singe’s limited and lonely life. To do so, she had to gain Singe’s trust.

“One day she spotted a big multipack of Tic Tacs in the kitchen. When Marianne and I were distracted, she deftly climbed up and grabbed the whole pack and ran off to her room. It was amazing how fast and nimble she could be when she really wanted something, especially considering how slow and frail she appeared the rest of the time. We followed her quickly but with trepidation because she was quite formidable when she was determined about something! Bravely, Marianne did manage to pry the multipack out of her greedy little hands, but only after she had already managed to break open one of the packets and wolf down the entire contents. At times like these, Singe was the epitome of the cheeky monkey.” Helen Thirlway in Primate People

Soiled Hands

In the final essay, licensed professional civil engineer and Indian American writer and activist Sangamithra Iyer writes, “I was interested in catastrophes—and in preventing them.” Iyer has communicated in sign language with Washoe and watched research chimps neurotically twist about in their “enriched” cages, she took care of chimpanzees orphaned by the bushmeat trade in Cameroon, and met highly endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda, where she visited a memorial church that houses skulls and other bones of genocide victims. As one who has worked cleaning up hazardous wastes, she understands that it takes billions of years to clean up poison. Reflecting on her time with orphaned chimpanzees and battle-scarred humans, Iyer ponders the nature of primates, including humanity:

“I am not a primatologist, nor a psychologist, but I have seen a chimpanzee spin her head in figure eights, and I have felt little orphaned fingers clinging to my shirt. I have seen skulls lined up on a shelf in a wooden church in Ntarama, and I have witnessed the way we deal with hazardous wastes in the United States. I know our human hands are soiled, and I wonder how we can clean up our messes.” Sangamithra Iyer in Primate People

In this final and highly reflective piece, likely speaking for many authors who contributed chapters to Primate People, Iyer writes, “I wanted to know that new lives were possible.”

More about Primate People