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Updated: Thursday, 18 Aug 2011, 8:31 AM EDT
Published : Thursday, 18 Aug 2011, 8:30 AM EDT
FRIO COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) - When Tim Ajax took over as the director of the South Texas Born Again USA Primate Sanctuary a couple of years ago, he heard a story from a neighbor about the demise of a nearby town.
"Millett was an active, thriving town down here about six miles south of Dilley off of 35,” Ajax said. “They had their own school and general store and it supported a large farming contingency down here.
"And my understanding is from 1951 to, I believe, about 1957, there was a severe drought down here and it basically shut everybody down.
"People packed up and moved away; some turned to ranching, but by and large, the town completely went under within a period of five to six years.”
Now the area, like most of Texas, is again in the grip of a severe and punishing drought, with temperatures climbing above 100 degrees almost every day for weeks.
And rainfall has been sparse. Ajax says the sanctuary gets an average of 22 inches a year. This year, only two inches have fallen.
All that marks a radical departure from conditions there as recently as the spring of 2010.
"We had a very nice spring in 2010,” said Ajax. "We had flowers everywhere, all kinds of vegetation. And, of course, when the monkeys have that type of rainfall, then they have a lot to eat here."
Now, though, food is the problem.
"We've always supplemental fed the monkeys,” Ajax said, “but in those times, we didn't have to feed near as much as we do right now because there just isn't anything for them to browse on or eat throughout the day.
"We feed produce, corn, all of it fresh produce that comes out of San Antonio. Every Wednesday, we get a truck that comes in, delivers anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 pounds of produce.
"Most of it is produce that is not human consumable or is borderline. There's huge warehouses that stock this produce. As it starts aging, we get a good deal on it; they get it out of their warehouse and it doesn't go to waste.
"And in addition to that, we also feed a commercial monkey diet to make sure that they maintain proper health.
"And throughout the summer, it's just been really, really hard. Every week the bill just keeps getting higher. Some of the produce has gone up as much as 30 per cent; our feed has gone up ten to 15 per cent.”
Then there is the water situation. A well on the 186-acre property pumps water into two small ponds that serve as magnets for the monkeys.
"It's a shallow well so it doesn't interrupt any of the aquifer or anything like that,” Ajax said. "We're hoping it's going to hold out. They cannot go a day without water, especially in this current climate. So it's life - simple."
If the well does go dry, water would have to be trucked in and there wouldn’t be near enough to fill the ponds. It would just be a matter of filling troughs to slacken the thirst of the monkeys just enough to keep them alive.
That would eliminate the swims they take to keep cool and the frolicking jumps they enjoy from the top of a tall dead tree at the waters’ edge.
The monkeys at the sanctuary are not used to this sort of thing. Most of them are descendants of a colony that once lived in the wooded mountains of South Central Japan.
"The majority of the monkeys here are direct offspring from the original troupe that came over from Japan in 1972 from Arashiyama, Japan,” said Ajax.
"At that point, the troupe there in Arashiyama that had been being studied by a Japanese primatologist had split into two groups. One group had decided to go down into the suburbs of Kyoto. And when that occurred, they started having altercations with the citizens there and the government was going to destroy them. So some of the U.S. students who were studying over there hatched a plan to try to save them."
There are 531 macaques in that bunch, otherwise known as Japanese Snow Monkeys. Then there are 13 baboons and four vervets. Some of those have led tough lives.
“We take in ex-pet, ex-research and ex-entertainment animals,” said Ajax. “Normally they have to be caged up; they cannot be put out into the local population here to free roam. So we build large natural enclosures for them to live their life out in an as natural environment as possible."
Born Free USA campaigns vigorously against the practice of breeding and selling monkeys.
"Now people unfortunately can purchase these monkeys over the Internet,” Ajax said. “The breeders breed these monkeys and steal the babies as soon as two days of age from the mothers. And the mothers don't give those babies up willingly. They're anesthetized or they're beat off and the babies deliberately stolen and, of course, that creates deep psychological trauma to the baby.”
The staff is trying to heal one such monkey enough so that it can join the larger group. It was sold by a breeder to a woman who just adored it. She changed its diapers and babied it for months.
But at the age of two, the monkey did what monkeys do: It became aggressive. The woman became scared and now the animal lives in a large pen, close
enough to allow the free-roaming macaques to get to know him. If the effort works, he will join a happy band, indeed.
"What we do here with Born Free is just provide them a good quality of life,” said Ajax. "They're as free as can be. We don't agree with keeping wildlife in captivity and we try to let them live their lives as normal as possible with us just supplemental feeding them. So the purpose is to support this population here.”
With the drought and heat, though, that is a tall order.
"Everybody's hurting,” said Ajax. "You know, the monkeys don't have the stamina or the energy that they used to have. You know, body conditioning's down a little bit, despite a supplemental feeding, so it's been very, very hard on everybody."
So will the sanctuary suffer the same fate as the town of Millett some sixty years ago?
"Right now, we're not in that situation,” said Ajax. “You know, as long as we get compassionate people providing support, we'll have food for the animals; we'll have water.
" We need donations and help. We don't receive any taxpayer dollars; we're totally non-profit and so we rely on the generosity of everybody out there to help support these monkeys.
"So we can certainly use donations, monetary donations, and anybody can go to our Web site and make a donation right on line."
As he speaks, a monkey, trying to escape the sun, crawls up under the low-hanging branch of a mesquite tree and watches as a cloud of dust rolls by.
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