Monday, July 25, 2016

A tale of a monkey's tail

The Forestry Farm zoo in Saskatoon has had a small group of capuchin monkeys for many years.  In 1981 a tiny infant arrived and was soon an attraction as it nestled up against its mother breast. One of the keepers, and older and very experienced man called Jureen had along established close relationship with the females. 

Jureen seen as a trusted friend
They would come right up to the wire and take titbits of food from him and seemed to enjoy being stroked. Not so much with Tarzan, the male.

The newcomer was two weeks old when Jureen told me that it had something wrong with its tail.

I went with him to see what was what. The mother came right up to the wire, the infant firmly attached to her belly. Jureen fed her some grapes, one at a time. This allowed me to take a careful look see that the tip of the infant’s tail was dark, almost black and had no hair on it. There was little else to see but it did not look good.

“Let’s watch them closely. I’ll come by every day and take a look,” I told Jureen.  He was a taciturn man at the best of times and sort of grunted a reply that meant okay.

Two days later, grapes in my own hand, it was obvious that I needed to take a closer look. The hairless end of the tail had now extended a further two centimetres towards its backside.

Jureen, to my amazement, opened the door of the pen. The mother let him take the infant from her.

The tip of tail was cold and swollen. It was gangrenous. Prompt action was needed..

Neither of us could be certain how that had come about, but Jureen thought that it might have been attacked by one of its pen-mates. We had no way of knowing which one. There were three possible culprits.  Its mother, the other adult female and Tarzan. The easiest to eliminate was its mother. Tarzan was a remote possibility, after all the, infant carried his DNA. That left the other female. She seemed to be a reasonable candidate and there was no way we could be sure. Jureen tucked the tiny infant inside his jacket and we headed over to the old house where there was a little clinic.

The surgery to remove the gangrenous end of the tail was simple. An injection of a small amount of local anaesthetic about four centimetres about above junction between healthy and dead tissue eliminated any possibility of pain for the little guy. That was easy to judge because the live tissue was warm, the dead, cold. While we waited for the anaesthetic to take effect I filled up a hot water bottle and we placed it, wrapped in a towel, under the patient. Another towel lay over its top. Next, a rubber band, twisted a few times and slipped up its tail made a handy tourniquet.

The key was to lop off enough tail at a junction between the tiny bones to make sure that everything left behind was healthy and had a blood supply. A flap of healthy skin on both sides was needed to fold over the stump for the stitches. All this took only a few minutes. The fiddly bit was the buried sutures. If the monkeys, especially the mother, found any tag ends of nylon they would promptly pull them out. Three stitches did the trick in no time. When all was done we used a swab to wipe off the iodine and alcohol that had been used to prepare the surgical site.

Jureen stood quietly by as I explained what I was doing. With the monkey again tucked inside his jacket we headed back to the barn. Jureen put the little guy back on a shelf in the cage. His mum came over to see how things were. She sniffed once and took off, heading through the exit to the outside display area. This was not good. It was impossible to decide if she had detected the smell of the disinfectant, or perhaps of me.

Our next step was to let the other two back from the outer section of the display and leave them to themselves. The thinking was that they might induce the mother to pick up her youngster as she might be protective or jealous.  

Half an hour later Jureen checked everything out. The infant had not moved and was cold to the touch. A rescue action was needed.

A syringe of a favourite drug cocktail and the blowgun did the trick on the mother. She was soon asleep.

We found a wooden box big enough to hold the pair of them and soon had a blanket in it. A twenty–five watt light bulb fixed to the wire front of the box made an ideal heater.

The next task was to eliminate what remained of the smells of those disinfectants. Warm water was a start but it would probably not be enough. I dipped a Q-tip into the mother’s mouth, another one into her rectum. These two were smeared over several parts of the baby, including the upper end of its tail. Jureen placed the hungry infant against its mother’s breast where it at once began to suck, albeit rather weakly.

An hour later we returned to check how things were progressing. The mother was awake, the baby was nestled against her. All was well.

This and other stories about zoo and wildlife work in Canada are part of my soon-to-be-released book Porcupines to Polar Bears.