Raising Iniko, the first baby patas monkey to be hand-reared by humans, has been a challenge for the Rosamond Gifford Zoo since she was born on June 8, 2020. Her mother, Becca, went into renal failure during her birth and Iniko was delivered by emergency C-section. Becca died shortly after, leaving the zoo’s primate team to care for the tiny newborn.
The zoo’s general curator, Dan Meates, and his wife, zookeeper Leisje Meates, stepped up to raise Iniko at their home. For months they bottle fed her every 2 to 3 hours and recorded her every move. It turned out they were pioneering the first recorded instance of a baby patas monkey being raised in human care -- during a pandemic. Leisje Meates named the baby Iniko, which means “born during troubled times.”
The little monkey thrived and won the hearts of CNY and beyond as the zoo shared her story. At 4 months, the Meates started bringing her to the zoo to expand her world and allow others to help raise her. Recently they began the delicate process of introducing her to her biological family, the zoo’s patas monkey troop, a tight group with a complex social structure.
Then things took another troubling turn. Iniko’s father, male patas monkey MJ, passed away. He was being treated for a gastrointestinal illness when his condition worsened in late February. His passing complicates matters, not so much for Iniko as for the troop he led as patriarch. MJ was the overseer and peacekeeper of the troop, which includes his three older daughters and their two “aunties,” Sarah and Addie.
In the wild, patas monkeys form permanent family groups of all females led by one mature male. This lead male may be challenged and replaced by a stronger male on a fairly regular basis. Male offspring of the troop will leave it when they approach maturity to lead their own troop, join an all-male group or remain solitary. Females have their own hierarchy within the troop, which can fluctuate or cause conflicts that will usually be settled by the patriarch.
The absence of a male leader at the zoo leaves its troop rudderless, making it a difficult time to introduce a new young female, said Rosamond Gifford Zoo Director Ted Fox.
“Hand-rearing the first baby patas monkey that we know of has been a total learning experience, and obviously that’s going to continue as we figure out the best way to proceed with integrating Iniko into our troop,” Ted said.
“Fellow AZA institutions will be paying close attention to how this goes, because it has implications for not just patas monkeys, but similar species of primates as well,” he said.
The zoo’s troop of patas monkeys already has a compelling history. The original group, including MJ, Sarah, Addie and Becca, were among 20 patas monkeys rescued from Puerto Rico by the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, FL, in 2010.
Patas monkeys are native to Africa, but a group brought to Puerto Rico for animal research either escaped or was released and began raiding crops to survive. As a result, they were being targeted for extermination as an invasive species and agricultural pests when the Lowry Park Zoo stepped in.
Five of the monkeys they rescued – MJ plus two adult females and their daughters -- came to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, which opened its patas monkey exhibit in August 2010.
Since then, the zoo has been among only six accredited zoos in North America to care for patas monkeys. AZA institutions share their knowledge to benefit species in their care as well as their wild counterparts, so every new piece of information on this species is relevant.
Dan and Leisje Meates already were writing a scientific paper on what they learned from raising Iniko. They may have another one in their future. Ted said what is known about patas monkeys led them to conclude that a new male will need to join the troop. Introducing a young male to a group of all females will allow him to take over as the new patriarch and the females to resume their former roles.
Right now, the plan is to bring in a new male from another zoo to become the leader and restore stability to the troop. “There are several options for introductions, and we are exploring which might be the most successful for Iniko,” Ted said.
If all goes well, Iniko will be able to meet her sisters and aunties and remain part of the zoo family. If not, she would move to another AZA zoo looking to start a new troop of young patas monkeys.
“Of course we want Iniko to stay here long term, and we’re going to approach this carefully and sensitively in hopes it works out that way,” Fox said. “But we are operating on the animals’ terms, not ours, so they will be the deciding factor. They will help us figure out what’s best for Iniko.”