Titi Monkeys and Me

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The field station on the edge of Peru’s Cocha Cashu.

My pack is my pillow. I lay on the damp, leaf-strewn earth gazing up at the titi monkey, waves of nostalgia crashing all around me. In a parallel life, I could have been doing this for 25 years. Deftly, nimble black fingers gather the small fruits and pop them into the monkey’s mouth. I can see its dark eyes clearly, searching for fruit, occasionally casting a furtive glance my way. It calls to its mate, and they scamper along branches, rejoin, and resume foraging in tandem. I have found what I have been looking for the last 25 years…in a sense.

I am at our biological field station at Cocha Cashu in Peru (see Cocha Cashu: Exploring Uncharted Territory). I have given myself the gift of the day: a day to wander through the forest alone; a day for nature pure and simple. No science. No human relationships. No over-thinking. From the onset, it is my highest hope that I will experience titi monkeys. I have spent the morning walking slowly and quietly through the forest, enjoying the birds, butterflies, and occasional monkeys.

A forest good for primates. This is an ancient ficus tree that bears figs relished by monkeys.

I hear leaves rustling quietly overhead and the softest little “peep-peep-peep” that instantly brings me back two decades. I recognize the contact call that the titi monkey gives to stay in touch with its mate while foraging. The next half hour is a personal journey through time—past, present, and future.

The year is 1988. I am in my first year of grad school at UC Davis. I am in a one- hectare “field cage” observing the daily drama that unfolds between several pairs of monkeys. James and Laura—the names come back to me—are the star couple, happily pair bonded and devoted to one another. Klinger and Mabel have troubles. Klinger is retiring and fearful (i.e., a wimp) and Mabel is…a would-be cheater. She has her eyes on James. I am collecting behavioral data and working out my doctoral dissertation research with professors Sally Mendoza and Bill Mason. I am also dreaming of relocating my research to the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Peruvian Amazon.

One of the other primate denizens of Cocha Cashu, the brown capuchin monkey.

But this project will never be. I will instead find a field project with rattler-battling ground squirrels in California and then find my way to a postdoctoral position with San Diego Zoo Global. I will track rhinos through the African bush and study giant panda ecology in the bamboo forests of China. One day later I will become the director of many conservation projects around the globe. But I will not study titi monkeys, and I will not come to the Amazon…not for a long time.

But today I am lying on my back deep in the Amazon watching a pair of titi monkeys feed, thinking of a life that might have been. I return to camp with an Amazon-sized lump in my throat.

Ron Swaisgood is the director of Applied Animal Ecology and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.