Monkey mom keeps close contact

Cindy Arnold feeds the spider monkeys Tuesday afternoon at the Hillcrest Zoo. Arnold raised one of the zoo’s spider monkeys after his mother abandoned him at birth. (CNJ staff photos: Andy DeLisle)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

The rules of the zoo are smashed by Cindy Arnold.

She presses her face against the metal cage, slips her fingers through the bars, and Binky, a spider monkey, leans forward to kiss her.

This kind of behavior is permissible only because Arnold is a retired zookeeper and Binky is her baby.

She raised the spider monkey until he was 13 months old, carrying him in a pouch at home and at Hillcrest Zoo, where she used to work.

“He went with me everywhere. He slept with me. He ate with me. He showered with me,” Arnold said.

On April 12, Binky turns 4.

The male monkey is housed in an enclosure at Hillcrest with three other spider monkeys, all females, all raised in the homes of Hillcrest zookeepers because their mothers abandoned them at birth.

“The parents had absolutely no clue how to raise them,” said Arnold’s husband, Herschel, who still works at Hillcrest.

When Binky was born, his mother threw him to the ground, where he landed on his face. His sister, Jasmine, was also left to die. Zookeepers had to intervene, they said.

Hillcrest zookeeper Mark Yannotti, who raised Jasmine with his wife, Kathy, explained: For primates, nurturing is learned. The mothers of the Hillcrest monkeys were acquired from a private party. Zookeepers suspect they were separated from their mothers too early.

The parents were sold to another zoo about five months ago.

The babies formed their own troupe, and Binky, with his harem of three, had begun to challenge his father, zookeepers said.

Recently, Binky was given a vasectomy because zookeepers feared if the new troupe reproduced they would also reject their offspring.

Raised like humans in homes with bottles, diapers, cribs, snuggles and hugs, the monkeys were forced by zookeepers to form a bond with each other, rather than continue the one they had developed with their human parents.

Weaning Binky from her home, where he inspected cabinets and swung across furniture, and returning him to a cage broke Cindy Arnold’s heart. The separation was difficult for Binky, too, who cried constantly and reached for his surrogate mother each time she walked away.

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” said hazel-eyed Arnold.

Time has dimmed, but not erased, the bond.

“They still know each and every parent. They don’t ever forget their family,” said Arnold, who visits Binky daily.

Today, as she stands close by Binky, he jets a hairy arm through the bars and tugs, hard, at her sandal with four extraterrestrial-long fingers.

“He’ll hug me and then he goes back to his girls,” Arnold said. “He knows mama’s not far.

“They (the monkeys) don’t need us anymore, which is good. That’s what we wanted,” she said, an arm woven through their cage.

Fast facts

Spider monkeys:
• Can live into their 30s.
• Are native to South America.
• Can fit into the palm of a human hand at birth.
• Have thumbless hands.
• Weigh from 13 to 25 pounds, but have the strength of a 200-pound man.
• Eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, fruits, vegetables and some meat at Hillcrest Zoo.
• Tend to stay inside their heated shelter and curl up under blankets at night during winters at Hillcrest.

Source: Hillcrest zookeepers