Meet the Monkey Lady

Mary Lynn Campbell has nine pet primates, but she doesn't think you should follow suit


by Mike Gibson

In the space of a single minute, the children at Erin's Kids daycare shift gears from full-on playground mode, all burbling little voices and horseplay and gleeful squealing, to pin-drop quiet, nearly breathless with anticipation. Few things in this world can lay claim to that kind of pacifying power over 20-some-odd overamped grade schoolers, but at the top of that short list is surely the treat that today's visitor has in store.

â“Where are the monkeys?â” a curious five-year-old breaks the silence. Special guest Mary Lynn Campbell responds by promising the children â“the most exciting thing [they'll] see all summer,â” and then ducks behind the enormous orange SunShine MonkeyShines umbrella lying on its side, beach-style, in the middle of the daycare floor. Moments later, Polly Wolly, a sleepy-eyed little capuchin monkey wearing a diminutive blue and white dress pops out of the top of the umbrella, perched on Campbell's right shoulder.

Over the next half hour or so, Campbell engages the kids with a snappy but sweet presentation that includes plenty of monkey fun facts (â“If it has a tail, it's a monkey; no tail means an ape.â”) as well as opportunities to interact with Polly Wolly and her playmate Maggie May, a 14-year-old capuchin. Maggie, wearing nothing but a diaper, steals the show when she appears from behind the umbrella and begins racing around the room on a monkey-sized ATV, handling the steering gear like a practiced rider while Campbell pushes from behind.

Most of all, Campbell stresses to the rapt onlookers the fact that, Maggie and Polly's abundant charms notwithstanding, monkeys usually make for â“terrible, awful, terrible, bad pets.â” She has her audience repeat the phrase like a mantra, just for emphasis.

â“If you ask anyone who chose to get a monkey, I bet nine out of 10 would say they don't make good pets,â” she explains later that afternoon, relaxing in the air-conditioned comfort of her cluttered but monkey-friendly mini-van. Still giddy from visiting the children, Maggie May is perched on her shoulder, eating fried pork rinds straight from the bag.

â“People think they will make the greatest pets, but they are so difficult,â” she continues. â“It's wonderful at the beginning, but then they mature. Then their needs change. They're prone to biting. And they need continuous care. It's a full-time job.â”

Watching Campbell interact with her precious pets seems to give lie to everything she just said; turning to face Maggie and the more sedate 31-year-old Polly behind her, she coos and cajoles the little creatures as if they were her own offspring. But Campbell is one of the rare exceptions to the rule; as the matriarch of SunShine MonkeyShines monkey rescue, she has made it her life's work to care for domesticated monkeys cast off by owners who didn't anticipate the mounting responsibilities their new pets would en-tail.

Campbell was living in Florida nearly 25 years ago when she was introduced to Kermit Matthews, a retired organ grinder who still owned monkeys he'd used in performance. Elderly and in failing health, Matthews was desperately searching for someone to take ownership after his passing. Matthews became Campbell's friend, and then her monkey mentor. â“It was fascinating,â” she says. â“It took me about two years to decide that I would be that person for him. I knew my life could change, but I had no idea it would change to the degree that it has.â”

She adopted her first monkey, a black capuchin named Penny, shortly before Matthews died; the old gentleman passed away five years after their first meeting. â“People found out I had a monkey, and started donating; that was how I ended up becoming the Monkey Lady,â” she says with a chuckle.

And in 1991, she co-founded SunShine MonkeyShines, a full-time monkey rescue operation she keeps afloat by conducting educational presentations like the one at Erin's Kids daycareâ"appearances at schools, daycare centers, community functions, civic groups, and even birthday parties. â“We could have either gone the route of a non-profit, begging for money, or we could give the gift of sharing the monkeys with people,â” she says. â“And we felt we could spend more time with the monkeys by sharing them.â”

Dozens of monkeys have passed through her care in the years since Matthews died, some of them rescued from failed attempts at domestication, others cast off from research projects or the entertainment business. Polly Wolly was pulled from her home high in the canopy of a South American rain forest and pressed into the pet trade by poachers before finding safe haven at SunShine. Maggie was the offspring of a pair of NASA research monkeys, adopted by Campbell when she was only nine weeks old.

Their problems and temperaments are nearly as diverse and complicated as those of human children. One of Campbell's charges, for instance, a small male capuchin, is often separated from the rest of the animals, most of whom mingle freely for the better part of the day. â“He just can't be very good friends, so I move him in and out,â” Campbell says. â“At feeding time I always make sure he doesn't have to share his food, because he's not good at sharing.â”

And Maggie May has special needs of her own. Diabetic since the age of seven, she requires regular insulin treatments, and some notable diversions from the diet of fruit, vegetables, and monkey chow (from a pet specialty supplier) the rest of her playmates enjoy.

That monkeys make poor pets is borne out by considerable statistical and anecdotal evidence; Campbell recommends that anyone who fancies ownership should check out before taking that step.

â“What happens is people will get a monkey and want to humanize it, turn it into a child,â” Campbell says. â“And that's pretty good for the first three years. Then the hormones start raging, and everything changes. The best example of how bad they are as pets is that a person will pay $5,000 to $10,000 for a baby capuchin monkey, and when it doesn't work out they'll search for someone to give them away. I think that says more than anything.â”

The trouble is two-fold, says Campbellâ"on the one hand, monkeys are exceptionally intelligent creatures, much moreso than the average household pet; the intellect of a capuchin, for instance, is comparable to that of a three-year-old child.

â“You're talking about an animal that understands things like manipulation,â” Campbell says. â“They understand playing, one person against the other. They understand about stealing toys and food from one another. They hold grudges. And they're extremely emotional, even more than dogs or cats.â”

And yet they're still wild animals, mercurial and sometimes overtly aggressive creatures with very particular needs, needs that often go unmet as the novelty of ownership wears off and pet owners become increasingly less attentive, leaving their temperamental charges to fester alone in cages.

The resultâ"rage and discontent reach a boiling point in animals already in thrall to the vagaries of budding sexual maturity, and manifest in the form of aggressive and antisocial behaviorsâ"can be tragic for monkeys and owners alike. Campbell recalls a SunShine MonkeyShines appearance where she was approached by a woman with a terrible scar on her forehead, a reminder of an encounter with an unhappy pet monkey that left her hospitalized for seven days.

â“It's a sad thing when a monkey bites or hurts someone,â” she says. â“Some are able to be collected and sent to rescues, but others are euthanized right away.

â“I can understand how it would seem like the next best thing to having a child, because they're so cute. But you know, when they mature, they're not so cute. Hormones are raging, aggression starts happening and it's not something that's just going to go away. It's who they are.â”

Campbell pauses and looks back at Maggie, who is still clambering around the mini-van, full of unspent energies. â“I don't like it when you're in back; you want to come sit on mommy's shoulder?â” she coaxes sweetly. â“You've been very good. Do you want a drink?â”

Placing her lips carefully on the end of a straw, Maggie shyly takes a sip of Campbell's diet soda. Again, the contradiction is perplexingâ"that monkeys can be so dangerous and unstable in captivity, and yet they seem so ease with this colorful and gregarious lady hailing from rural East Tennessee.

Campbell attributes much of her success to the fact that she cares for so many monkeysâ"the present count is nine, eight capuchins and a marmosetâ"thus affording the creatures plenty of non-human social interaction.

â“They're troop animals, and I think it's because of the troop that it works for me,â” she says. â“They have the best of both worlds; they can come out and interact with people, which some of them like to do. And they can go back home and just be monkeys, eat and sleep and groom each other and play.â”

But just as important are the patience and the TLC that have been the hallmarks of her stewardship since she acquired a little black capuchin named Penny more than 20 years ago. â“It's true that I've dedicated my whole life to this, to giving them the very best environment I can,â” she says, handing Maggie May yet another pork rind.  

â“The thing about people having monkeys is that there are just no guarantees. I'm not saying there aren't some people who have dedicated their whole lives, their whole world to making it successful. But those people are few and far between.â”

For information about SunShine MonkeyShines programs, call Mary Lynn Campbell at 988-3301. Appearance fees support the continuing operation of the monkey rescue.


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