Mateo the Spider Monkey at Home at Brevard Zoo

A rescued spider monkey gets into the swing of things at his new Brevard Zoo home

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Despite his inauspicious beginnings, Mateo has found a safe and happy home in the spider monkey habitat at the Brevard Zoo.
Despite his inauspicious beginnings, Mateo has found a safe and happy home in the spider monkey habitat at the Brevard Zoo.

A rescue from a smuggler. A long journey. A welcoming family. A surprise adoption.  

This is the story of a monkey named Mateo and his new home at the Brevard Zoo.

It is a story that most visitors would never guess. Picture yourself wandering through the zoo’s Rainforest Revealed habitat. You see tranquil sloths and colorful macaws; you hear the distinct sound of fulvous whistling ducks and glimpse the flamboyant plumage of a scarlet ibis. 

Then you spot the monkeys. They are playing together in a habitat that simulates their natural rainforest environment, thus gives them plenty of opportunities for climbing, leaping, and other monkey adventures. Trees, vines, and lianas, some real and some artificial, allow the monkeys to show off their agility. There are even “skybridges”—aerial pathways that connect different areas of the habitat and allow the residents to explore. They do look as though they are having fun, and, as you watch them interact with one another, no one seems to be left out or unwanted.  

Although there is no way to tell who might be a newer addition to the troop, one of these monkeys is Mateo. His complete acceptance belies the trepidation he showed when he first arrived. Looking back at his story, however, makes his present success all the more heartwarming. Author Katherine Applegate describes a good zoo as “a place where humans make amends.” That has truly been the case with Brevard Zoo and Mateo.

Mateo was about 6 months old when he was found by humans who wanted to help him. These people were not zookeepers, zoologists, or environmentalists; they were agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They found the monkey in a smuggler’s pickup truck. The driver was trying to cross the border between Texas and Mexico, and the monkey was cargo for the exotic pet trade.

Florida Institute of Technology associate professor Darby Proctor, who now works with Mateo at Brevard Zoo, points out that despite the monkey’s current well-being, his story is a cautionary tale. “We’re happy we helped this little guy, but we want to get out the message that wildlife trafficking is dangerous.” Sometimes, people who purchase exotic pets illegally have seen the animals as babies, and they are not considering how large, and how potentially dangerous, they can be as adults. “These are wild animals,” Proctor cautions. Attempts to turn them into pets are harmful for animals and humans alike. Many smuggled animals do not even survive the journey. 

The story of Mateo is one of serendipity; there were many dangers the little monkey managed to evade in order to make it to his new home at the zoo. Proctor offers a poignant reminder: “Usually, these stories do not have such a happy ending.”

Spider monkeys can be distinguished from one another by facial expressions, coloring, and tail positioning. Scientists at Brevard Zoo say Mateo is easily recognizable by the constant look of surprise on his face.
Spider monkeys can be distinguished from one another by facial expressions, coloring, and tail positioning. Scientists at Brevard Zoo say Mateo is easily recognizable by the constant look of surprise on his face.

After the customs agents rescued the monkey, he was taken to the Dallas Zoo. There, he was quarantined to be sure he was not carrying any communicable diseases. But where would he go from there? A return to the wild was not an option. Because he had been taken away from his mother at such a young age, experts realized that he would have virtually no chance of survival on his own. Therefore, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums conducted a search for a new home as part of their Species Survival Plan. That search led them to the Brevard Zoo, which already had a successful monkey troop of the same species.

Mateo is a black-handed spider monkey. Native to Central America, the species possesses a shaggy fur coat with a variety of black, charcoal, dark brown and chestnut brown hues. Mateo has a streak of fur on his lower back that is of a lighter brown, reminiscent of the color of hazelnuts; it is his most distinguishing feature.  

Like other monkey species, spider monkeys have a complex social structure that includes alpha males and alpha females. The black-handed spider monkey troop at Brevard Zoo included an alpha female named Shelley who was already a mother. The hope was that Shelley would prove to be a foster mom for Mateo, prompted perhaps by her maternal instincts. However, the monkeys had some surprises in store.

The spider monkey habitat blends into the treetops with vines and skybridges that connect the cognitive testing area to other playing and living spaces. Photography by Kelly Rogers
The spider monkey habitat blends into the treetops with vines and skybridges that connect the cognitive testing area to other playing and living spaces. The spider monkey habitat blends into the treetops with vines and skybridges that connect the cognitive testing area to other playing and living spaces.

Another advantage of Brevard Zoo as a home for Mateo is that there was a research team in place. The spider monkeys at Brevard are closely observed by Proctor and Kate Talbot, an assistant professor also at Florida Tech. In fact, the zoo has a spider monkey cognitive testing complex. The tests are elective in that it is always up to the monkeys whether they participate. “We play what must seem like silly human games,” Proctor explains, but which provide information about monkey intelligence. For example, will the monkeys work together in order to pull a string to get a food reward? Such observations give insight into their sense of cooperation and social structure.  

Another cognitive test involves seeing how the monkeys respond to what seems like inequity. One will be given a preferred treat, such as a grape, while another is given a less favored item, such as a cucumber slice. Does the monkey with the cucumber get upset and throw it back? The responses to such tests are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that researchers hope to put together to form a picture of monkey intelligence. 

Since skybridges connect the cognitive testing area to the rest of the monkey habitat, the tests are truly voluntary; the monkeys have the freedom to come and go at will. Meanwhile, researchers are able to observe them in ways that would be very difficult in the wild, where spider monkeys live high up in the rainforest canopy. 

The observations have impressed Proctor, who previously worked on similar research with capuchin monkeys. “People think that capuchins are the smartest New World monkeys. I used to be lobbying for them, but now I’m on Team Spider Monkey,” she says with a laugh. 

With an ideal location found, the next step was transporting Mateo from Texas to Florida. Looking into airline options, the zoos found only a “No Monkeys Allowed” sign, so to speak. Monkeys are considered potential carriers of COVID, so airlines were not allowing them aboard at all. However, Florida Tech has an aviation program, so Proctor contacted some of her colleagues. Thanks to them, Mateo got his own private flight in a Piper Seminole. It would be fascinating to know what the young spider monkey thought of his airplane ride, but alas, cognitive testing has not advanced that far. In any event, Mateo arrived safely at his new home.  

Mateo has integrated well with the other spider monkeys at the Brevard Zoo and has found a father figure in Shooter, and older male of the same species. Photo by Elliot Zirulnik
Mateo has integrated well with the other spider monkeys at the Brevard Zoo and has found a father figure in Shooter, and older male of the same species. Photo by Elliot Zirulnik

But how would he adapt? At first, Mateo was a very shy little monkey, especially when he was introduced to the troop. During his time in Dallas, he had been in quarantine, so he had probably not seen another monkey for half of his young life—since the time he was separated from his mother. “I don’t think he knew he was a monkey, or how to be a monkey,” Proctor says. He would sit by himself in a corner of the habitat, and he was uncomfortable being touched, even though touching and grooming are major aspects of social interaction for monkeys. “We thought he would want to get back with other monkeys, but boy were
we wrong.”  

Michelle Ferguson, the area supervisor at the zoo, concurs. “At first, he didn’t look comfortable at all. He would just kind of watch the other monkeys.” Perhaps he was wondering what they were and whether they were a threat. Thankfully, the troop was very gentle with the newcomer; in fact, virtually all of the monkeys tried to hug him. Hugs can be an expression of affection for monkeys, but they are also a way to learn about each other through scent, so this behavior indicated their curiosity about the new arrival.  

However, the hoped-for adoption by Shelley did not materialize. The alpha female was so protective of her own baby that, timid though Mateo was, she would not let him come near, nor did she reach out to foster him. Although he was in the midst of a potential new family, Mateo was still an orphan.

Then there was a surprise. Mateo was adopted—not by a female, but by the alpha male. The researchers were amazed. “As far as we know, this is totally unprecedented,” says
Proctor. She has thus far found only two recorded cases of spider monkey adoption, and both were by a female (the same female, actually). Adoption by an alpha male was not only completely unexpected, it was also a bonus for Mateo, since alpha male spider
monkeys are dominant even over
alpha females.  

The relationship between Mateo and his foster father, whose name is Shooter, unfolded gently. Shooter patiently overcame the newcomer’s shyness. Talbot says, “I remember Shooter reaching out his hand and waiting for Mateo to come to him. He was very kind to Mateo.”

What could have prompted this kindness? Curious, the researchers looked into Shooter’s background and learned that he, too, had been rescued from wildlife traffickers. Years ago, he had been introduced to the troop at the zoo as a timid newcomer, just like Mateo. This suggests that his adoption of Mateo is an example of animal empathy. As a scientist, Proctor hastens to add, “Of course, we wish we had more evidence of that.”  

The relationship is very affectionate and tender. “Shooter will let Mateo climb all over him and cuddle with him in cooler weather,” Talbot says. And if another young monkey is playing too roughly, Mateo does not need to worry—his foster father is there to step in and defend him. In fact, Shooter will intervene against his own biological offspring in favor of Mateo. He is an amazing foster dad.

Thanks to this care, Mateo has blossomed. Zookeeper Katie Milbocker observes that Mateo has developed a healthy enjoyment of food. “When he first arrived, he wouldn’t eat anything but grapes. Now he eats a balanced diet.” His menu choices have led to a nickname: “We call him ‘Tater,’ because he loves potatoes.” As for his official name, that was chosen by a generous donor to Brevard Zoo, as donors are sometimes given the opportunity to name an animal.

Professors Kate Talbot and Darby Proctor of Florida Tech in Melbourne, both of whom have doctorates in cognitive sciences, study the spider monkeys at Brevard Zoo. Photography by Kelly Rogers
Professors Kate Talbot and Darby Proctor of Florida Tech in Melbourne, both of whom have doctorates in cognitive sciences, study the spider monkeys at Brevard Zoo.

Now a part of the family, Mateo seems thoroughly comfortable climbing, leaping, jumping, and playing with the others. “When I first saw them playing,” recalls Ferguson, “I thought, ‘This is it.’” Mateo was learning how to be a monkey.

His climbing skills are also impressive, because when he first arrived, Mateo was reluctant to climb; having been taken away from his mother at a time in his life when he was still supposed to be clinging to her, his legs had not developed properly. Yet, along with his emotional comfort with the troop, he progressed physically and now climbs with all the agility to be expected in a species native to the rainforest canopy.

Today, watching the spider monkeys playing amongst the trees, vines, and skybridges of their habitat, it is hard to tell which one is Mateo. No longer is he frightened, confused, or unsure of what it means to be a monkey. Instead, he is leaping about happily with his new family and friends. 

However, if you a spot a young monkey with a streak of light brown on his back, who seems to be very close to a large adult male … well, you are probably looking at Mateo and his foster father. The surprise adoption has led to a very special bond. And because of it, Mateo has found a welcoming home. 

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