The hotheaded monkey named Romeo didn’t pay much attention to the advances of a young female named Juliet who was sharing his enclosure at the Santa Ana Zoo. Not at first.
But then, zookeepers started noticing the two monkeys stealing quiet moments together, chattering and grooming each other’s back hair. In monkey language, that means: Hello, sweet stuff.
And, it turns out, there’s been some monkey business.
Juliet gave birth last week to an apparently healthy baby that zookeepers still think weighs less than a pound. It’s a monkey in miniature, a tiny tuft with a scraggly tail and two bony hands anchored deep in its mother’s fur.
The baby is one of the first of its kind born in captivity in the United States. It’s a crested capuchin, and there are only 11 others – including its parents – living in U.S. zoos.
Crested capuchins come from Brazil, where they live in small, isolated groups and where their forest habitat is disappearing. The World Conservation Union lists them as vulnerable, which means they face a “high risk of extinction.” The group estimates that there are fewer than 10,000 living in the wild.
Crested capuchins are about the size of a small dog, and they’re covered in course, brown hair. They’re named after the capuchin monks, who wore crested hoods. They’re smart enough to use rocks as tools to break open walnuts.
The two now known as Romeo and Juliet arrived in Santa Ana within a day of each other in the fall of 2006. Their new home has often been called the Monkey Zoo because of a requirement, set down by its founder, that it always house at least 50 monkeys.
The zoo was able to get the two rare monkeys on loan from the Brazilian government because of its long history of working with New World primates, including other capuchins. It’s also a member of the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Romeo was born in the wild, and was already an adult when he arrived at a Brazilian primate center in 1999, said Vince Sodaro of Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Sodaro was instrumental in bringing the first crested capuchins to U.S. zoos in 2001.
Romeo lived for a time at the Brookfield Zoo, but the female he was paired with never got pregnant. That’s why he was sent to Santa Ana, to try his luck with a young female who was born in 2001 at the Los Angeles Zoo.
“Looks like he did the job,” Sodaro said.
Zookeepers figure Romeo and Juliet conceived their baby sometime last fall. The zookeepers didn’t know at first; but, little by little, they began to notice that Romeo was paying more attention to Juliet – and grooming her when she groomed him.
They also noticed that Juliet was getting a little heavy in the belly. Late last month, she started looking at her belly and feeling it, which told them she was getting close to giving birth.
It happened sometime overnight on March 25. The zookeeper who came to check on the two monkeys that morning saw the tiny baby, cleaned up and already holding tight to its mother.
Romeo has softened some since then, and has even let the baby clamber onto his back. But he still charges at the gate to his enclosure, brows knotted and teeth bared, if people get too close. Zookeepers still don’t know if the baby is a boy or a girl.
Juliet, meanwhile, has become a perfect monkey mom, as far as zookeepers can tell. Wherever she goes, the baby goes, too – clinging to her back or held close to her chest.
“She’s been very calm with it, very attentive,” Zoo Director Ron Glazier said. “She spends a lot of time grooming it, looking it over.”
The monkey family is still in their enclosure, where zoo visitors can see them. On a sunny afternoon earlier this week, mom and dad munched on broccoli while the baby slept and visiting children shouted for their parents to come look at the tiny monkey.