A Haven for Primates in Panama: Animal Psychologist Rasmussen Rehabilitates Refugees

When APS Fellow Dennis Rasmussen first slipped into his high-topped rubber boots over 20 years ago to research Panamanian tamarins, the animal psychologist quickly became captivated by the study of primates in their natural environments.

Chiquito, a rufous-naped tamarin (Saguinus geoffroyi).

His interest began when he arrived in Agua Clara, a peninsula west of the Barro Colorado Nature Monument in a man-made waterway called Gatun Lake that was created to form the Panama Canal, to study a rare species of monkeys known as tamarins.

Rasmussen focused his study on a theory that the tamarins were monogamous; his research disproved the theory. But Rasmussen’s interest was pulled into another subject area – the growing threat to the area’s non-human primate inhabitants from the encroachment of humans, including hunting and monitoring and controlling of the animal population.

The threat to the monkeys’ existence prompted Rasmussen and a small group of researchers to establish a safe haven – a sanctuary – where former pet monkeys and those confiscated from the illegal monkey trade could be rehabilitated to live in their natural environments. Their efforts produced the Primate Refuge and Sanctuary of Panama (PRSP), the first organization in Panama focused on the preservation, study and teaching of native primates.

Bohio Island
Bohio Island – Bohio is the term used to describe the wall less houses used as living and study areas by the primate researchers and staff at PRSP.

Nestled in a group of 42 islands known as the Tiger and Bruja Islands also in Gatun Lake, PRSP takes in rare animals including white-throated capuchins, mantled howlers, and night monkeys and endangered species such as rufous-naped tamarins, and black-handed spider monkeys. The small staff of PRSP, which includes Rasmussen, two other staffers as well as two to four undergraduate students invited each for a 3-6 month period, is currently rehabilitating over 130 primates on the islands.

Originally named the International Primate Sanctuary of Panama, Rasmussen said the name was changed two years ago to include the word “refuge” because of the group’s successful work in reintroducing former captive monkeys into their natural environments. After the monkeys are reintroduced to their native environments and become knowledgeable members of the forest community, the PRSP protects them and their habitat and provides them with food enhancement and health care.

Although research has shown that monkeys are known for their learning abilities, Rasmussen said those raised in captivity can be completely incapable of dealing with their natural environment.

“Taking a pet monkey to a national park and turning it free generally has the same consequences as running it over with a car,” Rasmussen said. “The monkey must learn and be taught how to live in its natural environment.”

Besides rehabilitation research, PRSP researchers and students are focused on two other areas of research, conservation and ecological research and observer influences, which are directly applicable to the management, training and reintroduction of primates.

According to Rasmussen, the broad area of research in conservation and ecology has produced studies that examine feeding ecology, social behavior, the relation between territory use and food distribution of Panamanian tamarins and the affect of environmental aspects on range use.

Since the PRSP’s inception, Rasmussen believes the group has improved methods of getting monkeys to accept each other and to form groups. “Our methods involve introduction in protective cages, where visual, auditory and olfactory communication is possible, but attacks and other contacts are prevented,” he said. “The methods work in captive or zoo environments as well as at the PRSP.”

The PRSP is also interested in the effect of observers, including researchers or visitors, on primate behavior. Rasmussen believes the data collected from PRPS research on this topic is essential not only to evaluating the impact of observers on the monkeys’ lives but also for the interpretation of the results of research conducted in other areas. Much of PRSP’s research can be applied to humans as well, Rasmussen said. He points to the work of the late primate psychologist Harry Harlow, whose studies on rhesus monkeys demonstrated the importance of mother/child bonding and the universal need for contact. Harlow and other psychologists also found that rearing a monkey separate from its own species can lead to an impoverished and abnormal social repertoire. They suggested that this too is analogous to humans, a conclusion Rasmussen has also reached.

In addition to the students invited to Panama year-round, the PRSP will be accepting 15 students for a three-week and a four-week research session this summer for its third annual Primate Behavior and Ecology Programs. The students earn college credit for the program while living and working at PRSP under challenging field conditions.

The students are divided into research teams to conduct original field research with an applied aspect, Rasmussen said, noting that a paper authored by the PRSP student team from last summer was published in a recent issue of the Laboratory Primate Newsletter.

“The research project went well and we anticipate several more publications,” Rasmussen said. “I’ve found that some students really flourish when given the chance to dig into research.”

This summer, student researchers will assess whether a muzzled dog can help train tamarins to escape from the ground up into trees. If successful, Rasmussen said the project would result in a useful labor-saving method of using one species to train another to acquire more adaptive patterns of behavior. “Using an experimental design from applied analysis of behavior, the ABAB Reversal Design, we will also be able to assess changes in the social and spatial structure of tamarin groups caused by the presence of an animal that will undoubtedly be perceived as a potentially dangerous ground predator,” he explained.

Despite the value of the research and rehabilitation activities, Rasmussen still has difficulty lining up funding for the PRSP. In addition to the standard hurdles involved in obtaining funding and setting up a sanctuary and refuge, Rasmussen said he is challenged by the reduced number of grant opportunities available to PRSP because it is not located in the United States and because the group is identified as Panamanian entity.

The latter poses other problems as well. The withdrawal of the US from Panama has resulted in a continuously changing bureaucracy of agencies and authorities with which the PRSP has to deal.

However, Rasmussen said the biggest and most important hurdle is achieving the full recognition and acceptance of the refuge by the Panamanian government and the Panama Canal Authority, which controls the islands. “The islands retain their natural beauty while only a few miles away the forests are gone and replaced with concrete,” he lamented.

Even with the uncertainty, Rasmussen believes proposals submitted to the Authority by PRSP will most likely be approved because the Panama Canal Authority has continually appreciated the efforts of PRSP and the Panamanian government has been supportive of forest protection efforts. Moreover, the PRSP has expressed its long-term commitment to conservation of the Panama Canal watershed, a region of the canal that contains a large share of the country’s protected forests and whose health determines the functionality of the canal.

The unpredictability of PRSP’s funding has not stopped a variety of agencies and nonprofit organizations in Panama from sending primates to the facility. The PRSP receives primates at irregular intervals, Rasmussen said adding that uncertainty over the number of primates the PRSP will take in each year makes it a challenge for Rasmussen and his staff to create an organized plan for primate reintroduction.

As the second largest primate sanctuary in the world, the PRSP has also taken on the responsibility of creating the International Association of Primate Refuges and Sanctuaries (IAPRS) to share information about common issues and challenges.

Rasmussen said the mission of the IAPRS is different from primate societies, many of which exist worldwide, because it pulls together groups who share a common interest in either refuges or sanctuaries. Since last year, the PRSP has identified 65 primate refuges and sanctuaries throughout the world.

The groups currently communicate through an e-group mailing list set up by the PRSP staff. Rasmussen predicts that the IAPRS will one day become a satellite group of an international primate society in an effort to link those with refuge and sanctuary goals with the broader areas of primatology.

“The shared knowledge will allow us to enhance the professional care on primates in refuges and sanctuaries, and to train future workers,” he said.

To learn more about the Primate Refuge and Sanctuary of Panama, visit PRSP’s web site at www.primatesofpanama.org.

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