It was 2014, and I was in Costa Rica for my first field experience with the Maderas Rainforest Conservancy on a field school expedition lead by Dr. Katie MacKinnon. We were on our fourth and final week of the field school, feeling tired, hangry, and pretty much all done with one another as far as our nerves went. It was our last day, and as usual, my group had issues finding our monkeys, a troop of white-faced capuchins which were acting rather cryptic- there had been a birth only a week before, and it seemed the monkeys were not taking chances with their terrestrial ape cousins.
At this point, data was essential- the end of the field school called for our individual project presentations, and most of us in the gung-ho capuchin group were severely lacking. To be fair, following capuchins was a lot more difficult than following the howler monkeys, who tended to be more populous, louder and therefore easier to locate, and less mobile than the capuchins. Howler monkeys, as folivores, have to spend extraordinary (and extraordinarily boring) lengths of time digesting leaves in their gut. In addition to the capuchins being difficult to find, it seemed each of us in the capuchin group had our own sets of problems. Rose recently had surgery to realign her pelvis, Donny had a leg in a cast that was healing from before the field school, and I? I had Wayne.
Now, usually when you’re watching monkeys they are well aware of your presence. The point of being in the field is to habituate your monkeys until they hypothetically don’t even notice that you’re not there. Seeing as this group had been part of field school trips since at least the early 1990’s, this was a well habituated troop. Of course, being as we are still in the primates’ space, you’re going to have some issues. In my case, I had to deal with one of the 20-something year old former alphas who was, in the human textbook, the definition of a grumpy old man. Despite having a collection of characters with assorted hats and other noticeable garments, and despite my short height and Donny’s towering 6′ something” stature, Wayne had it out for me and only me.
When a capuchin gets mad you receive a number of threats: face threats (this looks almost like a smile- it isn’t), jumping threats, and tandem face threats where the capuchins will run up and recruit a member of the group to also be pissed at you. With Wayne, I received the whole bunch. Wayne could be 180 degrees behind me while I am watching a completely reserved and uncaring monkey and he would rush ahead, making sure this monkey would perform a face threat and ruin my sample. There were days when periodic torrential downpours would call for a stop in data collection with everyone standing in the middle of the forest, heads down, and poncho hoods up. I would periodically look up through the rainforest mist, fog of my glasses, and rain droplets the size of pebbles and would see Wayne, grinning at me like he was wearing a Hannya mask.
Now, on this last day, Wayne was in a particularly ferocious mood. Fed up, I snapped several pictures of him with spit flying out of his mouth as he told me to back off from several meters away and shaking branches at me, determined to scare me off. Wayne’s temper had a low boiling temperature, and while mine was much higher, on this day I snapped. Wayne stood shaking a branch at me, ruining my sample as I tried to observe a monkey behind him. I turned to Donny and said, “Screw this monkey.” Turning behind me, I found a fallen banana tree. Wayne watched me, shaking the branches as he did so, screaming to make sure I heard. Defiantly I turned to Wayne and uttered, “Watch.” Beginning to shake the banana tree, I made eye contact with Wayne and he made eye contact with me. He shook and he shook and I shook back. Lasting no more than two or three seconds, this moment felt like a lifetime. But the look on Wayne’s face disappeared from rage into curiosity until eventually he turned around and walked off, giving me one last confused glance over his shoulder. I expected he thought something like, “Jeez, weirdo.”
Bet he wasn’t expecting that.