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Monkey Business


By Jean-Paul Renaud

Published Jul 1, 2015 8:00 AM


UCLA grad student Irene Godoy M.A. ’10 in the field recording data on Newman, one of Pablo’s sons and alpha male of Newman’s group. Photo by Ava Neyer.

Perry’s love for animals steered her toward veterinary medicine, but she quickly discovered that behavior was more appealing than physiology. While pursuing her doctoral degree in anthropology at the University of Michigan, she decided to study the capuchin because, she says, “It’s the brainiest monkey.”

“It was love at first sight,” she explains, referring to the first time she saw a capuchin. “And I knew that with the capuchin, there would be plenty of puzzles to solve.”

She settled on Costa Rica because of the political stability it offers compared to most other nations with wild monkey populations. She established her field site in a remote section of the country, among vast farmlands and nature reserves.

“Primates don’t live in convenient places,” she says. “Looking back, I’m not sure this location was the best one. The terrain is much more difficult to study in than other locations in the country. But I always knew it was going to be hard.”

Along with her husband, also an anthropologist, she landed in Costa Rica and, without knowing any Spanish, began the arduous task of building a second home and launching her career.

“I had only gone camping once before,” she says. “When I first arrived, I had to go about finding monkeys, using a machete, finding my way around. And I’m a terrible navigator. I get lost in cities.”

When her daughter, Kate, was born, Perry immersed her in Costa Rican culture — and monkey research.

“She was quite portable,” Perry says.

For the past 25 years, Perry has built a community of monkey lovers, not just the research assistants who come from across the world to help her in her discoveries — but also local residents who have become part of her team and her family. She has made such a presence for herself in the region that she is simply known as la monera — the monkey woman.

In The Jungle: Chapter 2

It’s 11:18 a.m. on that blistering April day in 2003. The two large and powerful groups of capuchins — Abby’s and Rambo’s — are headed for a collision.

Porthos is the first from Rambo’s group to come upon the playing monkeys along the two rivers. An unsuspecting Abby group member named Thornhill clashes with Porthos.

A fight ensues. Screams ring out across the forest.

Porthos is calling for help. Thornhill is warning his allies.

Several other males from the incoming Rambo group — Barbell, Tranquilo, Pablo and Moth — come to Porthos’ aid.

Thornhill, defeated, is chased away — never to be seen again.

Once the bulk of Rambo’s group arrives, the three dozen monkeys in Abby’s group, caught off guard, scatter in different directions.

“Dozens of monkeys were spread throughout the forest,” Perry recalls.


Photo by Hannah Gilkenson.

Abby’s group is decimated, broken apart and lost.

Adventures In Primatology

Today, Perry and her researchers stay on property lent to the Monkey Project by a local sympathizer, the son of a former Costa Rican ambassador to the United States. The farm is about 40 minutes from the nearest airport, accessible only by a dirt road and neighboring a protected forest reserve.

The team is split between a house that sleeps four and a hangar, affectionately called the bodega, where the more seasoned scientists sleep in tents. The nine current residents rotate fieldwork — two days on, one day off. On their off days, they edit their data, catch up on email, phone calls and laundry, and cook for the team following monkeys.

This is the latest in a series of homes for Perry’s research. It wasn’t always so cozy.

“We used to live with pigs,” she says.

Enter Seidy Rosales, whose father let Perry stay on their rice farm in the 1990s. Rosales, a local native, befriended Perry soon after the recent graduate arrived in the country with her husband. Rosales’ father owned land in the heart of Perry’s research area and invited the young scientists to headquarter their project on his land. The catch: no electricity or running water. And the tents were set up next to where some pigs slept.

“We’d be sleeping right up against the pigs and have to punch them through the wall of the tent when they rolled over on us,” Perry says.

But it was home. And there, Rosales and Perry spent the evenings trading recipes, practicing Spanish and perfecting the Costa Rican tortilla. “We helped her because she didn’t know anyone,” Rosales says.

“We Costa Ricans are always helping people who don’t know our country or our culture.”

It’s a philosophy that is underscored by the many people who have coalesced around Perry and her project, from the cab driver who has loyally ferried her team across the backwoods, dirt roads and mud pits for the past 15 years, to the park service staff who have come to rely on her expertise to keep their piece of nature safe and healthy.