Primate Rescue Center

Petey the Spider Monkey

Early in 2002, PRC founder April Truitt was contacted about an elderly Ohio woman living in squalid conditions with dogs and a monkey apparently in desperate need of medical attention. Representatives of the county health department, Adult Protective Services, and the local animal shelter were contacted about the situation. Chief Hughie Blair, of the local sheriff’s office, offered to help relocate the elderly woman and her neglected pets. After several phone calls plans were finalized, and April headed to Wheelersburg, Ohio, to meet with the involved parties.

Upon entering the residence, everyone was shocked by the conditions. The house was filthy, with no running water. Dirty cages overrun with rodents filled the living room. Eight dogs, one of them blind and another missing an eye, were confined to foul pet carriers. Another dog was stuck to the cage floor by caked feces. The spider monkey, Petey, was equally neglected. He limply lied in a 2’ x 2’ x 2’ cage that was too small for him to fully stand in or stretch out in. There was no water in his feces-encrusted cage and he looked as if he had rarely been fed. Every breath appeared to be painful and strenuous, and thick mucus streamed from Petey’s nose and eyes.

It quickly became apparent that the owner was confused and disoriented and was no longer capable of caring for herself or her animals. She did mention that she had owned many monkeys—as well as other animals—years earlier, who had all frozen to death following an accident. We were amazed when she revealed, during one moment of clarity, that in the early 1970s she had owned two chimps—Donald and Debbie—who now lived in Georgia. Further questioning left no doubt that these were two of the  “Dahlonega Five,” who had been relocated to the PRC in 1998.

The health department quickly declared the house “unsafe and unsanitary for human inhabitation” and condemned it. The dogs were confiscated and taken to the local shelter, while Chief Deputy Blair gave custody of the monkey to the Primate Rescue Center. The homeowner was taken to live with a relative until a more permanent solution could be found.

Upon our return to Kentucky, Petey was examined by veterinarian John Nance. His findings: Petey “had a severe upper respiratory infection and pneumonia. There were obvious signs of neglect… He had fecal matter all over his legs and rump as well as a secondary skin rash. He had generalized muscle wasting and disuse atrophy from prolonged cage confinement.” Petey’s prospects for recovery were grim, but he would nevertheless remain at the Primate Rescue Center to be cared for. If nothing else, his last days would be spent in relative comfort.

For the next few weeks, Petey required around-the-clock care. His gums were so swollen that they covered most of his teeth. He was too weak to raise his arms, so he was spoon-fed baby food and given water from a syringe. His bedding had to be changed frequently and he needed to be bathed daily as he was too feeble to move to relieve himself. To combat the pneumonia, he was administered antibiotics several times daily. There was a faint spark in those ebony eyes, and we struggled to keep it alive.

There was also hidden strength in Petey and, amazingly, he began to show signs of improvement. The antibiotics eliminated his respiratory infection and his breathing was no longer labored. The mucus disappeared and the swelling in his gums subsided to reveal more teeth, which he now used to eat and enjoy the likes of fruit and pasta. He was soon able to sit up on his own, although his muscles were so badly atrophied that any movement was extremely difficult. To stretch and work his legs, Petey spent an hour each day in an infant bouncing chair. Before long, he was moved from intensive care to an area where he could see and hear other monkeys.

Petey was moved to a much larger enclosure with multiple levels that he could easily climb between. Though his movements were at times still slow and uncertain, he continued to improve and appeared quite content in his new home. He easily fed himself and ate both frequently and heartily. He also began to exert his will like a healthy monkey, pushing away food he disliked and even making threats towards strangers.

Petey’s health continued to steadily improve, and in early August 2002 he was finally ready to meet the other spider monkeys face to face. However, Petey was—and would always be—weaker and slower than a normal monkey, so we proceeded cautiously, first allowing him sole access to one-half of the enclosure as a way of orienting himself to his new surroundings. 

In less than a week Petey was moving around comfortably, and we removed the temporary railings and ladders that had been installed to aid his movements. To minimize his stress, we decided to begin the introductions by letting just Bisou over to Petey’s side. Bisou was older and more docile than the other, more rambunctious three, and we hoped that she would be gentle and friendly towards Petey. Unfortunately, she refused to acknowledge him, even when he approached her or screamed at her; instead, she sat sulking far away, watching her regular companions like a punished child kept indoors on a sunny day.

After much discussion, we decided to take a chance and just open the entire enclosure up to all five spider monkeys. To our surprise, Petey immediately raced to the other side, although he then quickly retreated to safety, grimacing and shrieking. As the others approached, he wailed and cringed. Amazingly, they seemed to understand Petey’s situation and backed off until he calmed down, then approached him very slowly and quietly—uncharacteristic behavior for the usually energetic spider monkeys. Within an hour, Chester had approached and gently touched Petey. Then Booger, to our great surprise, approached and embraced him. Petey hugged back, both lip-smacking and making happy and excited spider monkey sounds. Over the course of that afternoon, they all spent time sitting near him, as if to make him feel a part of their group. Only Bisou never attempted contact. Perhaps she still resented having been stuck alone with him.

After that first wonderful day, things continued on beautifully for Petey and the gang. They remained together and, on several occasions, we observed the others embracing or cuddling the newcomer, particularly in the cool of the morning. He was initially a little uncomfortable taking food around the others, but eventually he began moving about his enclosure with ease and confidence, even greedily snatching up his meals up just like his housemates. Despite his physical handicaps, which he would endure until his death, Petey was—and always would be—one of the group.

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