The Behavior of Primates

Posted Jan 6, 2007
Last Updated Jun 21, 2012
The Behavior of Primates

by Andrea Campbell

In the beginning my desire to get a monkey was not altogether altruistic. When I signed on to be a foster parent for the Helping Hands program, I knew the monkey I raised would be trained to help a quadriplegic, but my modus operandi was for me. In the aftermath of my jaw surgeries and subsequent recuperation, I was feeling broken and had no earthly direction for industry—no sense of what I could do for work—no inkling of what I could do to satisfy myself or feel useful. I didn’t feel particularly independent. . .
I wasn’t functioning as I had previously. . . and I was trying to work my way back to wellness.

We all have certain needs. And being inside our own skins, we don’t always know which needs aren’t being met or even realize what’s missing. At that time I didn’t know any of it and I was too close to my own person to figure it out. But when Ziggy came along she was a baby. She needed me, and she didn’t care what I looked like or what baggage I carried. My relationship with her was a clean slate. She gave me a chance to start a new adventure, so learning about her became a quest. I had something else to think about and I didn’t have to ask myself over and over again, “Why me?” There’s no denying it, Ziggy affected my life in a big way! She tacked her needs onto the bulletin board of my heart, just as I had tacked up the letter announcing her arrival. I happily and ignorantly integrated her into my life; we read together, walked together, and spent every waking minute together. She was, and is, still a child.

But if you’re enamored with the idea of raising an exotic primate as a pet, ask yourself this question: Do you really want to raise a child for 40 years? I mean, part of the fun of having foreign exchange students is they add new notes of culture into your family’s database, they are fun and young and hip, and best of all—they stay only a short time and you don’t have to pay for their college. With our own children, of course their stay is longer, they leave behind permanent memories and they are more expensive, but they still leave at young adulthood, usually after 18 years. A dog, a short life span. A cat, independent and temporary. A monkey—a lifetime of care. And if you have no network of support, no organization like Helping Hands to bail you out, then you are opening a fortune cookie with long and sometimes confusing consequences. Your fortune may well read: “Person who take primate must not have sulky kids or snarly spouses.”

We primates expend a lot of our energies on emotions. Monkeys have those but often operate on instinct or doing whatever it is they want done at the time. They live for the moment, while humans get caught up in the jet stream of time and forget to have mindfulness; since we’re always moving ahead we don’t take time to study faces or analyze the nuance of every person around us. We act like someone in conversation who wants to speak, except in the interim of planning his contribution, he doesn’t take the time to listen to what’s being said. My father was like that, he would add a comment, when, unbeknownst to him, the topic had changed. Most of the time it didn’t matter because he was our father, and we dragged the conversation back to where it had diverged.

We human primates also whine about how time flies and get nostalgic over past memories, which are mostly just a distorted take at what we perceive was a kinder or better moment. Most of the time we’re living on autopilot, then the time comes when we have to face down some catastrophe life throws at us, and time’s passing becomes agonizingly still. And large. And overwhelming. Ziggy’s growth, together with the pain of recuperation from all the surgeries, taught me to enjoy the days when nothing much happened, when watching her face and deciphering her body language became a source of wonder.

Even though Ziggy’s vocalizations to us were limited, such as: “uh-huh” for agreement, “hoo-hoo” for isolation, lip-smacking for conversation, “Heh-Heh” for alert-danger, crying for bitching or taking something away, and screaming for being pissed, we were still dying to have her tell us more. We were like anxious parents teetering on the cusp between encouraging a child who wants to say his first word, to rounds of sheer hopelessness with wanting to understand.
I’d ask Zig, “Do you love me?”
“Uh-huh,” she intoned.
“Do you want peanuts,” I’d say,
“Uh-huh,” she replied (Sounds oddly similar.)

But the noise when I came home from a short absence and she greeted me was unmistakable—a composite of all the sounds Ziggy was capable of, only higher in tone, squealish and happy—it couldn’t be mistaken for anything but joy. Sometimes when I tried to explain a look or a particular habit she had to other people, I wasn’t able to define it but I knew what it meant when I saw it.

Ziggy is gone now. She has been placed with John. Capuchin monkeys like Ziggy are raised with foster families until they are old enough to be trained as free, live-in companions and helpmates for quadriplegics, people who cannot use their arms or legs. John is actually not wheelchair bound, but his disability makes life very difficult because of the pain he endures every day. Ziggy will perform certain tasks to lighten his load and act as a loving companion as John lives alone. Ziggy lived with us for thirteen years before going to Helping Hands headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, for training; and she is the subject of the book: Bringing Up Ziggy: What Raising A Helping Hands Monkey Taught Me About Love, Commitment and Sacrifice. I recently got pictures of John and Zig cuddling together. I wouldn’t have been sure of her placement until I saw the love that bonds them together.

The news of Ziggy’s placement was bittersweet. I miss Zig terribly but I know that she will bring laughter, love and companionship to someone who sorely needs her and will love and respect her for the rest of her life. It’s still the best gift I could give to anyone.


Andrea Campbell is the author of ten nonfiction books on a variety of topics including forensic science, criminal justice, and entertaining and parties. Photos of Zig and information about Andrea can be found at:


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