Jungle News: January 17, 2003

Rescue in the Bayou by Lee Ward

I first heard about Ebi (which rhymes with Ely) on Thursday, January 9. A few days earlier, Ebi’s owners in Louisiana had turned him over to Angie and Randy Walker, a couple with a local reputation for rescuing unwanted animals. They housed the abandoned weeper capuchin monkey in their garage temporarily, while they hunted for a permanent home for Ebi, and eventually they were referred to Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Gainesville, Florida.

I interned at Jungle Friends last year to learn the ropes of monkey care and sanctuary operations, and am currently preparing to move from Texas to Florida to join the Jungle Friends staff in the spring. When I received an email from Kari Bagnall, Jungle Friends’ Director, about Ebi’s situation and her plans for fundraising to provide a habitat for him, everything seemed routine. Sadly, Ebi is just one of many, many unwanted “pet” monkeys.

But Thursday evening the situation quickly escalated when Ebi freed himself from his cage and vanished into the cold night. For the next three days Kari worked via phone and email from Florida to stay in touch with the Walkers, area police and animal control, network them with her contacts in other parts of Louisiana, and spread the word to others who might be able to help.

At first it seemed hopeful that local authorities were handling the situation so that Ebi would soon be recovered. But on Friday night, with near-freezing temperatures, the little monkey was still missing and Kari was frantic. By this time I realized that I was going to be personally involved in this search – something was telling me that I needed to go to Ebi and bring him home. But where was he?

Although the night temperatures in Louisiana were dropping near freezing – much too cold for a monkey designed for a tropical climate – I was heartened to learn that it had not yet snowed or iced as we had feared. I began working on the logistics of making the 500 mile trip and consulting my crystal ball as to when Ebi would put in another appearance. The lost monkey had not been spotted for over 24 hours, since he was chased from a golf course on Friday. Was he still in the vicinity, or had he been frightened so badly that he moved on? He could already have been caught…

That, it turned out, was the case. A local woman had found Ebi on Friday and had been driving around with him in her car. Unfortunately, on Sunday when the monkey helped himself to her fries, she made the mistake of trying to take the food away from him. WRONG move. Ebi bit her (or more accurately – since his teeth were removed by his previous owners – he gummed her) and escaped once again. I guess she learned that monkeys don't make good pets!

But now that a citizen had been “bitten” I worried that the authorities might label him “dangerous” and euthanize him (and all he did was guard his food, just as any self-respecting monkey would!) I was heading to Louisiana right now, even if I had to go alone.

Nine hours later, at 3:30 a.m. Monday, we arrived at the Walkers’ house. Angie and her husband Randy put on a pot of coffee and filled us in on the current situation. Sunday evening, Ebi had been located and coaxed onto a policewoman’s shoulder (apparently Ebi is something of a ladies monk). But a failed attempt to net him had set him running again.

I was worried that, having been recently bonked on the head with a net, the monkey would be harder than ever to approach, and he had now fled farther from the road, back to the swampy area at the end of a levee. Still, we now knew where he had been the night before. The bayou and swamp would prevent him from going farther, and the levee was the only way in and out.

At 6:30 a.m., we all bundled up, and Angie and Randy led us through the twisting back roads to the place we hoped to find our little escape artist. Our plan was simple – to arrive just before sunrise, before the monkey would be up and moving, and walk the levee carrying enticement foods and hope that Ebi would show himself. We took along our radios so we could communicate at a distance. Just before 7:00, as soon as it was light enough to see our path, we started walking and calling.

Angie led us on our first run up the levee. I trudged along, straining my eyes for any movement that might be a monkey. Our light Texas jackets were inadequate against the winter cold and dampness of the early morning. But poor Ebi had been out in the cold all night, with no jacket at all.

He was nowhere to be seen, and I was now resigned to a long day of searching and waiting. I was worried that too many people may frighten Ebi again, so I decided to go on the search alone, while the others waited behind with the cage.

Angie had promised me it was too cold for the alligators to be out, but I figured one would come out just for me… and there was a huge flock of vultures at the other end of the levee. I checked with binoculars to be sure they weren’t feasting on monkey, and then wondered if they had their eyes on me. The terrain was uneven and I’d already fallen once (luckily, not into the bayou... and I even managed to avoid the horse poop). Those vultures probably thought I was on my last leg and were just waiting…

I was almost back to my starting point, scanning from side to side as I went and shaking my little bag of chips, when a hunched-up black figure appeared on my left. He came toward me, growing taller at each step, until he was standing upright. I’m sure the look on my face was utter shock and my eyes were the size of dinner plates. Here was Ebi and he was as tall as my leg. Oh lord, I thought, they told me you were tall but I was not prepared for you to really be THAT tall.

I offered him some chips, which he very politely took and ate. After doing this about four times he got close enough for me to put my arm down to him. He climbed up on my shoulders and sat up to eat. The poor thing was trembling violently from the cold, and was so hungry.

I started walking very slowly, feeding the monkey as I went, until I heard a voice on my radio. I quietly shared the good news – Ebi had been found – and the bad news: someone would have to bring the cage across the levee to me – without scaring Ebi away, and before he lost his appetite for corn chips.

As I approached the gate, Ebi spotted the others (and the cage) coming toward us. He immediately climbed down from my shoulder and started to run, but I walked behind him until I got his attention again. Then I stopped, spread out a blanket, and sat down. It worked. He came over and sat at the edge of the blanket and accepted the food I offered.

I knew that my only chance of catching and holding him was to get a firm grip on his tail, and I knew I would only have one shot to get it right. It took about 20 minutes, but eventually, shivering from the cold, Ebi got all the way onto the blanket and tried to wrap it around himself. I gradually moved closer to him, petting him and talking soothingly. When he shifted so that his tail was exposed, I was ready--I grabbed it and hung on. With my other hand I grabbed my radio and told my “team” to get the cage ready, I was on my way.

Ebi tried to struggle at first but soon gave up. Compared with some of the vicious cats I handle in my job as a veterinary technician, this exhausted, toothless old monkey was a piece of cake. He went into the cage without a fight, and was happy to find one of his favorite foods, a fried egg from Angie, waiting for him.

Of course, as we hurried along I had to slip and fall yet again. By landing on my back, clutching the cage to my stomach, I somehow managed to avoid dropping the monkey. Ebi was unharmed and still captive--and I missed the horse poop again--so it was okay.

After one quick stop to fill out the necessary paperwork (a release form giving Jungle Friends official custody of Ebi, and a USDA transfer form), we hit the road. We wanted to get Ebi out of the small travel cage as soon as possible.

Our return trip was uneventful (if a little stinky). Ebi curled up in his hammock, too tired to do much other than sleep and slowly chew the food we handed him between naps. His expression of exhaustion and relief seemed to say, “For now, this is enough--to finally be warm again, and not be hungry. I’ll worry about the future later.”

At 6:45 Monday evening, we rolled into Dallas, almost exactly 24 hours after we set out. It was an important 24 hours for Ebi, a day that will change his world forever. Though he doesn’t know it yet, his future looks much brighter than his past.

I had agreed to bring Ebi home with me and care for him until I returned to Jungle Friends in the spring. He can get a full veterinary exam at the clinic where I work, and have a chance to recover from his ordeal, and any other health problems we might find, before he joins the other monkeys at the sanctuary. By then, we hope, donations from sanctuary supporters and Ebi’s fans will enable Jungle Friends to add a habitat to accommodate him, and our little fugitive will have a safe, comfortable, and permanent home at last.