PENAFLOR, Chile — Elba Munoz used to have a lot of money. Now, she just has a lot of monkeys: 154 of them, to be exact.
They all live in her backyard and on a plot of nearby land she bought to set up the only privately owned primate rescue and rehabilitation center of this size in the region.
It all began when a boy knocked on her door with a wooly monkey sitting on his shoulder. It belonged to his parents’ pet shop, and he was going door to door trying to sell it. It was 1994 and Elba, a midwife, lived in a comfortable home with a large, lush, tree-laden backyard in the quiet rural town of Penaflor, half an hour away from the capital.
Elba had always liked monkeys, and she and her husband, Carlos Almazan, a doctor, decided to buy the 8-month-old primate named Cristobal. Soon after, they decided to take him for his first check-up. That’s when they realized no one in Chile knew anything about monkeys, because Chile has no native colonies of its own. They took him to vets, clinics for exotic animals and even the national zoo. But all they got were perplexed looks.
They then went to the government's Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) and asked why it was allowing monkeys to enter the country if no one knew how to care for them. And that’s when they found out that Cristobal and all other monkeys being sold through the yellow pages, the internet and in pet stores were illegal, trafficked animals.
“We started this center for love of Cristobal. I had never seen an animal as evolved as this monkey. He expressed emotions — you could tell if he was embarassed, angry or expressing love. I saw how he suffered, and it immediately awoke my maternal instinct. We started learning how monkeys were being mistreated, that they were completely abandoned, and no one was enforcing the law. It was a huge irresponsibility to let these animals into the country just to have them suffer,” said Elba.
This realization changed their lives, their family, their home and their finances. Word of mouth got around that the Almazan-Munoz family had a monkey and a big house, and a few months later, people started bringing them the pet monkeys they no longer wanted. Some even dropped them off in front of their gate and ran.
“People would buy baby monkeys as pets because they were cute. But when these monkeys grow up, they stop being so cute, their hormones act up, they develop their teeth and they start acting like what they are: monkeys. They start taking things, biting to get something they want, eating all the plants and flowers and destroying things. With the first bite, people start looking for ways to get rid of them,” said Elba.
For the first three years, her family took in seven monkeys, all given up by families. During that time, Elba and Carlos learned about endangered species treaties, animal trafficking and most importantly, about monkeys. They traveled to the Amazon, Peru, Brazil and Guatemala. They met with directors of animal rescue centers and sanctuaries to learn what monkeys ate, how they moved about, the space they needed, how they jumped, what their sounds meant and what fruits they liked.
SAG also began sending the family the monkeys it was confiscating from traffickers and circuses. In 1998, it sent them 22. A year later, another 30, and the year after that, 11. Throughout the following years, SAG took dozens of monkeys to the Almazan-Munoz home, while people continued to hand over their pet monkeys.
Three cappucino monkeys joined the center in 2000, after a television program used a hidden camera to film the cruel experiments being practiced on them at the University of Chile’s neuroscience laboratory. The public exposure prompted the lab to hand over Darwin, Aristoteles and Socrates to the center.
The beautiful backyard was transformed into a mini monkey zoo, with big cages adapted to the needs of each monkey species, with tunnel systems, hammocks and swings. At this point, Elba had ceased to work as a midwife in order to dedicate her time and energy to the monkeys.
Eventually, they bought another plot of land nearby and got authorization from SAG to create the rescue and rehabilitation center to care for the monkeys the agency was confiscating. The original plan was to rehabilitate them — many arrived with serious chronic illnesses, injuries or mutilations — and return them to their natural habitat. But soon they realized that was impossible. She was able to place only two chimpanzees in their natural habitat: Eusebio and Toto were sent to a protected sanctuary in Zambia. The rest, says Elba, will live with her family the rest of their lives.
Most trafficked monkeys in Chile come from Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. According to local laws and international conventions, they should be sent back to their country of origin, and if this is not possible, to a specialized center in the country where they were confiscated.
The SAG, however, has no center of its own, and sends most of the monkeys it confiscates to Elba’s home. Of the 240 monkeys she has taken in over the past 15 years, about 180 were sent by SAG, but the government agency provides no financial help.
“They say they don’t have a budget for this and that I am doing this because I want to,” Elba shrugs. “But with every monkey I receive, I solve their problem and show them in their face how inefficient they are.” (The SAG was unavailable for comment.)
Before, Elba and her husband traveled all over the world on vacation, and she would buy expensive perfumes. Now most of their income goes to maintaining the center, which demands more than $80,000 a year, not counting most of the fruit, which is donated by a local supermarket. They also have about 265 sponsors that donate at least $5 a month, sporadic groups of foreign volunteers, veterinarians who provide free treatment and four salaried workers.
Today, Elba has 40 monkeys in her backyard, and 114 at the center. She talks to them, kisses them, caresses them and knows the name of each and every one of them.
“No one knows more about monkeys in Chile than I do, not even primate experts. I have raised all of these monkeys, 24 hours a day. I can communicate with them. I know them so well that I can foresee what they are going to do. It implies a lot of expenses, problems and energy, but when I feel their love and see them recover, I realize that I have given them a new opportunity to live,” she says.
But for Cristobal — the monkey who started it all — the end was tragic nonetheless. After 10 years at Elba's, he was attacked by other monkeys and died. It was sad, says Elba, “but it showed that you just can’t go against nature."