Jupo, the baby spider monkey given to me on Christmas Day the year I was twelve, popped out of the wooden crate she was in, just like she was a jack-in-the-box. I screamed. I screamed so loudly that she got scared and jumped back in, covering her tiny head. It took me fifteen minutes of whispering soft, sweet words for her to show her face again. And after that, she never left my side.
Our family had a set of encyclopedias, and my parents suggested I use it to find out about my new pet. Spider monkeys, I read, come from the tropical forests of Central and South America, and from southern Mexico and Brazil, as well. Their disproportionately long limbs and long prehensile tails gave rise to their name. They are social animals, and live in bands of up to 35 individuals, but will split up to forage during the day.
As far back as I can remember, I had always wanted a monkey. It didn’t matter what kind. My parents had all sorts of wild animals—a cheetah, an American bald eagle, two coatimundi, several ocelots, pythons, hawks, Guinea fowl, peacocks, a baby fox, a coyote, some bats, a tarantula, a pair of kinkajous, and an otter. We also had domestic animals, like horses, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, and a little Cairn terrier named Wriggles. But we didn’t have a monkey. And then, suddenly, that Christmas, we did. And she was mine. All mine.
We lived out in the country in an old stone farm house which was in the center of twenty five acres of manicured lawns, eighty-foot trees, rolling green pastures, an apple orchard, a pond, and a great big, old wooden barn. My brother and I had full run of the place. Since Jupo was with me all the time, that meant she had the run of the place, too.
Spider monkeys primarily eat fruits, the encyclopedia said, but will occasionally consume leaves, flowers, and insects. They are diurnal, so spend the night sleeping in carefully selected trees. I knew I could give Jupo fruit and leaves, but I wasn’t certain about the insects. So I called the Philadelphia zoo for help. They gave me a list of things that would be healthy for her to eat, like mixed-together egg, corn flour and meal bugs. I had a floor-to-ceiling enclosure for Jupo in a corner of my room. There was a sturdy tree branch inside for her to climb on, and a blanket for her to wrap up in. But at night, she mostly slept with me.
I don’t know what season Jupo and I enjoyed the most back then. At the end of one season, I was always anxious for the next to begin. Her first summer, however, was the most unforgettable one. I remember taking her out one June day when she was just eight months old, spreading a red plaid blanket on the lawn, and sitting there with her in my arms so she could look around. But her small body trembled so hard I finally took her back into the house.
A mother spider monkey, I read, carries her baby around her belly for the first year. I carried Jupo across my front—her arms, legs and tail would wrap around me and she’d hold on tight. Spider monkey mothers are very protective, and they put their young on their backs when teaching them to navigate from tree to tree. After Jupo’s first few days outside, she stopped shaking. Soon, I moved her from the front of me, onto my shoulder. One day, I went over to one of our Ginkgo trees and stood right next to a branch. Spider monkey mothers sometimes pull branches closer together so the baby can climb for the first time, feeling more secure. So I did that, making a nice little shelf with two branches that she could sit upon safely.
That’s when, out of the blue, Jupo suddenly detached herself from my shoulder and, without even a glance in my direction, jumped onto the branch. In the time it took me to open my mouth and let out a gasp, she had climbed to the top of the 80-foot tree.
To be continued…