By Natural Encounters keepers Corri Osborne and Rachel Godambe
For guests visiting the Indoor Rainforest exhibit in the Carruth Natural Encounters building, a little monkey awaits with a big surprise!
Normally, visitors are quick to comment on the flashy appearance of the bright orange Golden Lion Tamarins seen in the Indoor and Outdoor Rainforest exhibits. Right now, however, all eyes are on the Cotton Top Tamarins. These monkeys are known for their shock of white head hair and their brown and white coloring. That all changed for our two monkeys in preparation for our celebration of Proyecto Titi, one of the conservation organizations that is featured in the recently released book Wildlife Heroes.
Natural Encounters zookeeper Rachel Godambe worked with the pair to dye their hair bright blue in support of the wild Cotton Top Tamarins of Colombia, who are studied by Proyecto Titi scientists and are fitted with radio trackers and dyed in color patterns to make identifying individual monkeys at great distances a slightly easier process. This weekend, keeper chats at the Indoor Rainforest will highlight the conservation work done by Proyecto Titi to save these tiny endangered monkeys. Guests will be able to spot our brightly colored monkeys and learn more about what native Colombians are doing to celebrate Cotton Tops and protect them and their rainforest habitat.
On Sunday, author Jeff Flocken will be at the Houston Zoo to sign copies of his book Wildlife Heroes, available for purchase at the zoo, and to share his wonderful stories about Cotton Top Tamarins and Proyecto Titi. Please stop by on either Saturday or Sunday to see our information display and learn more!
Check out Rachel’s answers to some monkey related questions below:
Fun Facts about our Cotton Top Tamarins:
- Cotton Top Tamarins vocalize to each other with a variety of high pitched squeaks that sound a lot like bird calls.
- Cotton Top Tamarins tails are long but they are not prehensile. They use their tails for balance as they run and leap through branches.
- Cotton Top Tamarins are social animals and live in groups of 2 to 12 individuals in the wild.
How long have you been a CTT trainer?
I have been training Mikey and Minnie the Cotton Top Tamarins at Natural Encounters for 8 months now.
Is this the strangest behavior you’ve trained the monkeys?
If you told me I will end up dying monkeys’ hair I wouldn’t believe it in a million years!
What makes working with Cotton Top Tamarins so rewarding?
These guys have interesting personalities which makes training them so fun and rewarding.
You had great success in dying the CTT hair bright blue. What was the process? What was your biggest challenge? How long from start to finish did this take?
It took a month to accomplish this goal of dying their hair blue for the conservation event. I had in mind applying the dye with a syringe. They are used to the presence of the syringe for oral medication and associate it with treats, so they were quite comfortable with this process. I used the syringe with water and had them touch a target, which is one of their long established training behaviors. The syringe was presented above their heads and a reward was given. I did this for a few days and once they were accustomed to it I dripped some water on them from the syringe and rewarded them with a big jackpot (lots of verbal goods, wax worms, currents, and yogurt tossed at them) and they did not mind at all. We did these sessions a couple of times a week up to a few days before the event. It was now time to introduce the dye (nontoxic food coloring) and this is where I was faced with a challenge, the dye would not apply properly to the hair. It was suggested that we use a small paint brush. These guys have never seen a paintbrush in their lives and to have it rubbed on their heads could be very scary for them. After practice sessions of presenting the paintbrush with the dye on it and moving it around them with lots of treats it became a positive item to them. Eventually, they let me apply the dye with a paintbrush on their crazy white hair. Now you can see them rock their blue hair in the Natural Encounters Rainforest for conservation!
The biggest challenge was Mikey would only let me do a few strands at a time because he would run to the window and stare at his reflection. We had to wait for him to stop looking at himself, then he would come back and let us do some more. It was a time consuming process, but I think he just wanted to make sure it looked good. = )