Canal Zone Capuchins

A trip to Panama City would not be complete without a visit to her iconic canal. I grabbed the opportunity to spend time on the canal alongside towering supertankers, while being introduced to her abundant wildlife.

During the construction of the Panama Canal in 1913, the sprawling Gatun Lake was created above the Gatun dam. As the water rose to new levels, swallowing vast areas of rainforest, peaks of high ground became islands. These islands became isolated wildlife communities, cut off from the mainland. Our boat slowed to a gentle chug as we approached one such island. I saw a branch bounce and heard a rustle of leaves, then a glimpse of movement within. The curtain of green cracked opened to reveal a tiny pink face; that face belonged to a White-faced Capuchin.

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A White-faced Capuchin appears out of the foliage

We drifted closer to the overhanging trees and more monkeys appeared. Capuchins are smart, so they knew what to expect. It was early and we were the first boat of the morning to approach the island. The monkeys know that where there are boats there is food. The skipper whistled to a couple of monkeys. He threw a grape up in to the tree which was plucked, one handed, from the air by a grateful capuchin. The monkey scurried off to enjoy the sweet treat. A second monkey hung in the tree expectantly until it received a reward. The boat kept a little more than a monkey-leap distance away, as this troop has a history of violence. Perhaps an unintended consequence of feeding from boats.

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White-faced Capuchin

We chugged around Gatun lake, watching the supertankers of the world rubbing shoulders as they squeeze along the watery superhighway, between trees decorated with tanagers and trogons. We drifted towards a second island where in no time at all Capuchins appeared on a branch and the same routine played out. This troop had never involved themselves in questionable behaviour, so the boat drifted towards a low branch and a couple of confident monkeys climbed on board. They stayed only for a few moments, gently took fruit from people’s hands and hopped back on to the branch. The Alpha male hung on the side of the boat just long enough to pee on my leg!

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The White-faced capuchin is a medium sized monkey growing up to 45 cm (17 inches), the male being larger than the female, with a longer, prehensile tail. Capuchins live in large family troops of around 15 monkeys. Around three quarters of the troop are females and the rest a combination Alpha males and young males. Males will leave the group every few years in search of a new troop of their own. In the wild Capuchins will live for upwards of 20 years although in captivity it is not unusual for a specimen to reach the age of 50! The capuchin has a reputation for eating anything. As well as fruit and leaves they will devour insects, amphibians, reptiles, molluscs and bird’s eggs. They are a key species in the distribution of seeds throughout the forest.

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This monkey encounter left me with mixed feelings. I was delighted that I had a chance to see the Capuchins so close, but I was less comfortable with witnessing the feeding of these animals on high sugar fruits for the benefit of tourists. The monkeys were fed a very small amount of fruit, but we would not be the last boat of the day. Is this a small price to pay for the relationship that is being built between humans and the monkeys?

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Considering our current economic models, is there a better way of securing the long-term future of this island monkey community than by ensuring that they feed a growing Panama tourist industry? It is hard to say that humans are interfering with the Capuchins natural way of life by feeding them when we have already flooded their jungle and isolated the community, interrupting their access to natural food sources and fresh genetic material. Their isolation is in someways a shared story with the United States citizens who were born into the quarantined life of the Canal Zone.

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Cheeky monkeys

Finally, after much deliberating and considerable study on the issue of feeding wild animals, including conflicting science pertaining to several species, I decided conclusively that I am not in a position to judge. I didn’t feed them, I don’t encourage feeding them, but if I saw them starving would I feed them? Yes, I probably would, so who am I?

We are not on the outside looking in to a functioning eco-system. We are the eco-system, just as much as the Capuchin, a sparrow on the bird table or the ants feeding on spilled fizzy drink. It seems to me that the food that we drop or offer is now as much a part of the planets food chains as the leaves that grow on trees.

 

Join the conversation below. I have a feeling that there may be some strong opinions around this topic. I would love to hear them. Do you have a policy on feeding wild animals? Where do you draw the line? Have you encountered monkeys in the wild? Maybe you lived in the Canal Zone? 👇👇

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29 Comments

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  1. In my opinion feeding wild animals as find as long as the food is healthy for them and it doesn’t cause any danger for the human or the bird.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nicholas. It is funny how people often feel that feeding birds is ok but feeding mammals isn’t. I like your thinking.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The question of feeding wild animals is a many layered one. You are correct, David, that feeding these monkeys might ensure their “survival” as their nature food supplies are cut off by “civilization.” And yes, wildlife tourism does give them an economic hook and feeding them makes the humans more interested and therefore more likely to spend their money… However, the fact is that any animal will become dangerous and aggressive if not fed when and what they depend on. Human feeding makes them unafraid of human, aggressive, and in the long-run, dangerous to humans. Being dangerous to and dependent on humans will eventually ensure their demise. And the fact that the monkey peed on your leg shows his “dominance” over you. That in itself is a bad sign. Feeding wildlife is not responsible wildlife tourism – even if it is well meant and nutritious.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Great comment, thanks Roberta! I’m please to get an argument against. I thought I would hear more voices around this issue. Just to handle one point that I didn’t properly explain in the article. The Capuchin didn’t pee on me as male monkeys are prone to do. He peed, and that pee happened to end up on me via the boat. I have been peed on by completely wild monkeys in the rainforest in the past, as a sign of dominance.

        I agree that responsible wildlife tourism cannot include the feeding of wild animals. I suspect that the first group of monkeys that we saw had become violent as a direct result of feeding. For this group the consequences will probably not be negative as they are on an island with no land access for people. People can easily avoid them. If this were to happen with a group on the mainland then the consequences could be very bad for people and ultimately for the animal. Feeding = not responsible tourism. It should never be part of a business model. For this reason, I have not been able to recommend this encounter to others. I wish I had seen them under different circumstances, as I had expected.

        Separating the issues of tourism and feeding. I did see many instances in Panama of mammals feeding on food put out for birds in people’s gardens. I always fed birds in the UK. This is encouraged by bird welfare groups. The stakes are clearly higher if you have Capuchin, Tamarins and Coati in the garden. Here the black and white issue seems to become a little grey and yet the consequences could be the same. The important thing is that people explore the issue and make informed decisions about appropriate behaviours for their location.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with Nicolas provided it is not used to perform for us. I witnessed in Jamaica were crocodiles are enticed to the boat by feeding them chicken bits. We feed our wildlife that visit our gardens. A very good post which encourages us to think about our actions.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Ah yes, the topic of feeding wild animals is a tricky one. As with so many issues, I’d say it depends. I wholly disagree with feeding animals that can pose serious risks to human life if they come to expect food from people – like big cats. Capuchin monkeys though? I’m not sure.

    Also, I’m glad you pointed out that – contrary to popular belief – humans don’t exist ‘outside’ or ‘above’ nature.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the comment, Josh! It is a very tricky subject. I agree with your comment but of course, we then see examples from the Mumbai leopard population where they take pigs, kept by humans in the city, and thrive. Is that the same or different as the feeding is unintentional feeding? Complex! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very complex indeed. My instinct would be to say that there’s a difference between intentional and unintentional feeding, but I wonder if the behavioral changes are the same? I feel a Google Scholar search coming on.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I love your blog, David — not only do you share your travels and wonderful photos with us, but you raise thought-provoking questions too. Some oppose feeding wild animals because it habituates them to humans (leading to unfortunate encounters that usually end poorly for the animal), erodes the animals’ natural foraging skills, and can cause overpopulation … which in turn can spread disease. But is it really so horrible to toss the crust from a sandwich into the woods, or throw a few grapes to a troop of monkeys? I don’t think so. To me it seems a greater sin to waste food that could nourish another living being than to maybe risk making a monkey obese. But as you discovered on this trip, what feels “right” can be largely situational. If we all thought so deeply as you about the long-term consequences of our actions the world would be a much better place. Fantastic photos, by the way!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Heide, thank you so much for your kind words and the well thought out comment. The question of feeding does seem to be subjective. We want animals to remember how to forage, while we destroy their habitat in the name of progress. Others have drawn the distinction between feeding to help the animal thrive and feeding for our entertainment. I think we all agree that feeding that promotes conflict through habituation is very dangerous. That said, Planet Earth II showed us an almost unbelievable relationship between humans and urban hyenas. As you say, it is for all of us to think deeply about cost vs benefit to the animal, and the unintended consequences of feeding.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. As you point out, we can be a bit hypocritical by saying okay to feeding birds, but no to other wild animals. But birds do not seem to develop negative behavioral responses the way other species are prone to doing.

    I only feed hummingbirds in the summer (their population numbers have grown as a result of human feeding).

    That said, I really don’t think it’s appropriate to feed wild animals. In fact, I very much discourage any interaction with them aside from observing at a respectful distance. They are better off not getting comfortable around humans. I do not like zoos, or animals exploited for our entertainment, like at Sea World.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I agree with you that we shouldn’t interact with them. Putting food out for them must help especially as we are taking their habitat. My passion is trees and woodland conservation.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Eilene, thank you for your comment. I have always fed the birds in my garden and tried to keep the food healthy and clean. I hope the result of this has been positive but I don’t know for sure. I would definitely feed hummingbirds if I had the chance. Whether this has a detrimental effect on pollination of flowers or maybe even a positive effect, I don’t know. I agree, we should try not to interact with them.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sarebear's Writing Spot May 3, 2018 — 9:17 am

    I feel much the same way as you. I don’t feed wild animals per se but if I saw one starving it would be hard for me to refrain from doing so. I really can’t say until I am in that situation though.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Wow, David – a great post! So well-said about how we’re not outside observers on this, or any, ecosystem; we ARE the ecosystem. Thank you for the education and continued promotion of thought and awareness.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. You raise an interesting issue here. I share your conflicted reaction: I get such a kick out of of being eye to eye with wild animals, but can’t ignore the feeling that we are placing an indignity on them. I guess attempts to tame other animals is part of our own nature as a species.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the comment! It is interesting how so many of us are a little conflicted on this issue. I thought there would be a lot of strong opinions against feeding mammals. A secondary question that is inside your thought is do we tame animals in order to establish dominance over them or is there a compassion towards another living creature inside us that is bursting to get our. Maybe both!

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  9. I always thought that we should never feed wild animals for the practice will change their behavior. But what you said about us being part of the ecosystem is something that never came across my mind. In the end, I have no expertise on this hence my inability to judge. As long as the animal’s population remains stable, and the ecosystem stays in balance, probably we can say that there’s no significant harm caused by this practice.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the comment. It is tricky because we don’t always know the long-term effects until it is too late. That said, your test questions of stability and measurable harm seem like a good place to start. I’m happy that the article introduced a new idea to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Due to a glitch on WordPress I am unable to ‘like’ your post but of course I do.

    Presuming that the wildlife is able to fend for themselves in their natural habitat, I wouldn’t feed them. However, if you think about what people put into the mouths of human children and indeed themselves, a few grapes for the monkeys don’t seem so bad.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post David! I have mixed feelings about feeding wildlife for the sake of photos or tourists, but it is so important to at least have a balanced conversation were you can see many sides of a complex issue. It’s so easy to say ‘never feed wildlife, it’s always bad’ but there is so much more to it, especially considering what we as humans have done to animal’s natural habitat. I agree with you in terms of not feeding wildlife myself, but I don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge or condem others. Fantastic post! I’m looking forward to following your blog 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Kerri! Your kind comment means a lot to me because your work is fantastic! 🙂 Feeding wildlife is a complex issue and I’m please to see that most people are keen to explore all sides of the discussion.

      Like

  12. I love this blog post! Very accurate, very honest. It reminded me of the cities episode of Planet Earth II. We certainly have totally affected/influenced the natural behaviour of not just these monkeys, but so many other species, that perhaps we need to accept the fact that we’re very much a part of the eco-system, so rather than counting ourselves out (perhaps not the most responsible thing to do, especially in areas where we’ve been so destructive that the local species are struggling), we should embrace our duty to restore and conserve. Though that should at the minimum level mean we’re educated in the local wildlife’s needs and natural diet and respond to that accordingly. Fruit that’s high in sugar content perhaps aren’t the best!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for the great comment, Kate! If anything on my blog reminds you of anything in Planet Earth ll then I am very happy. I think we as a species are still learning how to be good environmental stewards, without being clumsy. The issues are complicated and I don’t pretend to have the answers, but education on what local wildlife needs in order to thrive would be a great start. Hopefully this article and many others like it provoke a little thought on our place in the eco-system.

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