It seems apropos that the first monkey I worked with was named Noah, biblically the first zoo keeper ever and the first conservationist.  Noah, the monkey, not the biblical figure, was the first non-human primate I ever saw up close and without a barrier.  Imagine that for a moment.  You’ve spent your life enamored with primates and only seeing them through glass or across a wide barrier and then, suddenly, in front of you sits a tiny infant capuchin monkey bouncing around and burrowing through someone’s hair.  From that moment on I was a part of Noah’s care team and assisted in hand rearing several other capuchins while there.  Noah though was my first love.  We all know the biblical story despite religious affiliation.  Noah built the ark on God’s command to prepare for a great flood.  Noah, looking a fool building an ark for an impending flood in the middle of a great drought, did as he was told.  But he wasn’t told to merely save himself and his family.  He took two of every animal.  Let’s not get into the debate whether this is parable or literal or even the logistics of saving two of every species, presumable the land dwelling species.   For our purposes here the fact that a story exists as parable or otherwise to save two of every species makes Noah, as a historical or fictional character-and perhaps even then it’s not black or white, our first true conservationist.  Why save two of every species?  Our first species survival plan was born within the walls of Noah’s ark. 

An AZA zoo(American Association of Zoos and Aquariums) adheres to strict reproductive protocols and actually has specific breeding recommendations for endangered species.  That means that committees within the AZA called SSP’s or species survival programs, determines the genetic value and representation of every animal in a given species in every AZA accredited zoo across the country and determines which individuals can breed with other individuals, if at all.  Most animals at modern zoos are not owned by those institutions but are on loan from other facilities for breeding purposes. That loan may well last the duration of that animal’s life, but it depends on the gene pool and how well represented each individual’s genes in the population are at the time.  If the participating zoo does not recognize and adhere to the breeding recommendations of the SSP, the facility risks having their animals placed elsewhere.  Even animals that are not endangered require responsible breeding protocols to ensure the health and husbandry of the existing population at a given zoo.  Unfortunately, at my first zoo, this was not the case. 

At my first zoo, indiscriminate breeding was the protocol with little concern for who was breeding whom, how often and whether there was space and resources for more babies.  In fact, as these hand reared babies became too old to handle and were placed in groups, new babies were needed for “outreach”.  Outreach animals are animals that are taken off site to schools, birthday parties and festivals to use as “ambassadors” for a conservation message.  In the case of primates, as was mentioned in the last post, hand raised females typically will not care for their offspring, thus making it necessary to hand rear their babies.  So, this became a nice cycle for the zoo to continually have cute baby primates to use as advertisement for the zoo.  Sure, we preached how monkeys do not make good pets, but it seemed a contradiction in terms as we held a precious little monkey in a diaper drinking from a bottle.  I value the experiences I had at this first zoo.  They are certainly experiences I would not have been a part of had I taken a more traditional route to my zoo keeping career.  The route, traditional or otherwise, to becoming a zoo keeper I will address in a separate post, but suffice it to say that mine was old school. 

Noah, the biblical figure, was charged with saving two of each species and as we have agreed upon suspended disbelief in the logistics of accomplishing such a task, divine intervention notwithstanding, we see an early concern in the conservation of species.  Now, the same difficulties in population genetics that confronted the offspring of Adam and Eve seem to be a recurring theme in the two surviving members of each species.  Somehow though we all waded into to the deeper waters of the shallow end of our respective gene pools and became obviously successful organisms as evidenced by the fact we exist at all.  The point to it all is that conservation has been an essential part of our make up as humans and our history.  Cultures and the creation stories of religions across the globe have reverence for animals and their conservation in some respect.  As an aside, when I refer to animals I do not believe humans any less animal, but is easier to refrain from the delineation of non-human versus human animals.  Please know that I do in fact understand that humans are animals and not some superior, being above the kingdom of animalia.  We are animals, albeit very successful ones in a top of the food chain kind of way, for now anyway. 

Humans in their present incarnation are only about 200,000 years old.  The emergence of the first anatomically modern humans, along with the increase in brain size transformed the bipedal primate into a fully fledged member of the top of the food chain.  It was but 10-12,000 years ago that we domesticated ourselves and began settling into semi permanent camps which allowed us to grow crops and keep animals rather than hunt and gather in a nomadic way.  We began to age because the old could stay put and work and those who were sick and injured could recover in camp rather than be left for dead as the rest of the group continued to follow the food.  When we domesticated ourselves, we domesticated animals as well.  We became zoo keepers.  Proper animal husbandry determined whether we lived or died, flourished or floundered.  The same is true today as it was then and as it was with Noah.

Noah, the non-human primate, was my introduction into being a zoo keeper- a steward.  I felt the tiny hands of a non-human primate pat my face and wrap his tail around my arm.  I was hooked in a way that mothers are when they first hold their own infants.  We spoke a common primate language that is translated through eye contact and facial expression that says- I need you.  Biblical Noah did not just save his family upon that ark.  It would have meant less work and ridicule if he only needed to build a boat big enough for his family.  He was commanded to build a giant ark that would offer sanctuary to the animals that inhabited the world.  Noah was chosen as the first zoo keeper and conservationist.  Noah the monkey baptized me in the profession of being a zoo keeper.