Abused Alcoholic Monkey in Chile Beats Addiction

Nicolas, a tufted capuchin monkey, gets help at a primate treatment center.

Escaping the clutches of alcoholism is never easy, and it certainly wasn't for Nicolas, who had to go on anti-depressants to cope with the withdrawal symptoms.

But thanks to the timely help of a Chilean treatment center, he has finally been able to get back to what he does best: being a monkey.

Nicolas, a tufted capuchin monkey, was abused in captivity by his owners -- shopkeepers in the Chilean capital Santiago.

They amused themselves by teaching him to smoke cigarettes and giving him alcohol.

"They liked to see his reactions when he drank. He became more aggressive, and that made them laugh," said veterinarian Nicole Rivera Helbig.

Nicolas, whose owners had his fangs removed, was made to drink so often he became addicted.

Today the small brown monkey, who gets camera-shy when journalists film him, is one of about 150 illegally trafficked animals recovering from various forms of abuse at the Primate Rehabilitation Center in Penaflor, on the outskirts of Santiago.

After going through a rehab program similar to the ones human addicts undergo, he is now in recovery.

But his case is not an isolated one.

"Alcohol, cigarettes and drugs are the most common things (abusive owners) give to monkeys, because they see it as a game," said Rivera.

One monkey was even taught to steal jewels from unsuspecting people on the street, while another, an aging female, was subjected to hormone treatments in a laboratory.

With lush trees and plants that seek to emulate the monkeys' natural environment, the rehabilitation center today hosts a range of species, from the gangly spider monkey to the pint-sized squirrel monkey.

Many bear the scars of mutilation, wounds from choke-hold leashes and other signs of abuse.

"Here, monkeys learn that they are monkeys," said the center's founder, Elba Munoz, a life-long animal lover who runs the facility with her family.

"When they're in (abusive) homes they aren't monkeys, they can't develop the normal behaviors of their species. So they're not monkeys. And they're not children either. They're nothing," she told AFP, against the din of her patients' shrieks and howls.

Munoz launched the center in 1994 after adopting a monkey herself.

She said it made her realize the horrific treatment exotic animals face at the hands of traffickers and abusive owners.

Animal trafficking is a persistent problem in Chile, where exotic pets are seen as chic status symbols.

Under Chilean law, trafficking in protected species is punishable by up to 60 days in prison and large fines.

But the penalties do not stop a heavy traffic in exotic animals across the Brazilian, Bolivian, Peruvian and Argentine borders.

Monkeys were all the rage in the 1990s, but then the fashion switched to exotic birds like toucans and macaws.

The trend of the moment is iguanas, lizards and boa constrictors, said Carlos Munoz, deputy chief of an investigative division tasked with fighting environmental crimes.

"The reptile market is enormous in Chile," he said.

And monkey trafficking is "still a problem," he said.

Monkey owners put themselves at risk of diseases like rabies and tuberculosis, while reptiles can carry salmonella bacteria, he warned.

Keeping these illegal pets, he said, is bad for owners and animals alike.

A tufted capuchin monkey surveys the landscape. Another of its kind, Nicholas, has received treatment for alcoholism brought on by his owners.

The five most athletic primates are named in the world's most comprehensive guide on primates, "Handbook of the Mammals of the World" (Lynx Edicions, 2013), released this week.

The number one athletic monkey, according to the guide, is the Patas monkey. Editors Russell Mittermeier, Anthony Rylands and Don Wilson write that these "are the fastest primates, relying on their speed to escape from predators." Their running speed can reach up to 34 miles per hour.

The indri is the largest living lemur. "Its hind limbs propel it through the trees in leaps up to 30 feet," according to Mittermeier, Rylands and Wilson. The leaps allow the lemur to efficiently travel high in the forest canopy, where it searches for food such as tender leaves, seeds, fruits and flowers. The leaps also often allow it to jump out of the way of predators, like hawks that can go after young indri.

The weight-lifting champ of the group is the bearded capuchin. These primates "can lift heavy rocks and smash them down to crack open palm fruits," according to the editors.

The bearded capuchin, also known as the black-striped capuchin, was the first non-ape documented to use tools in the wild. Over the years, the monkeys have evolved strong back and leg muscles that enable them to walk on their hind legs while carrying stones.

"Long-tailed macaques are skilled swimmers and can catch fish with their own hands," Mittermeier, Rylands and Wilson share. These primates sleep in trees alongside rivers, taking time to select their roosting sites. When a predator approaches, they frequently jump into the water and swim out of harm's way.

"Gibbons are masterful acrobats, swinging hand over hand with uninterrupted leaps through the forest canopy," according to the editors. Their relatively tiny size -- about 20 inches long -- makes them even faster as they glide through the air. Their swinging lifestyle allows them to exploit fruits and other foods that larger bodied arboreal animals cannot reach.