Westfield monkey sanctuary aims to give research primates ‘the dignity they deserve’

May 23, 2019

WESTFIELD — It’s going to be a busy summer for Wisconsin’s first and only monkey sanctuary.

Primates Inc. will unveil a new visitor education center June 29, thereafter offering free public tours of its 17-acre property in the Marquette County town of Springfield. The tours will be held each Sunday through September and are limited to 10 people per tour.

The nonprofit also completed a nature trail along its perimeter, where the public can view the monkeys at a proper distance. It is open to the public by appointment.

“It’s amazing how far we’ve come in such a short time,” Primates Inc. Executive Director Amy Kerwin said of recent progress.

The nonprofit group purchased its property in 2013 with the aid of several grants and donations, including more than $200,000 in three separate grants from retired TV game show host Bob Barker’s animal welfare foundation, DJ&T.

Since January 2018, the sanctuary has housed monkeys that were retired from U.S. research laboratories. It also accepts monkeys that worked in the entertainment industry and others surrendered to the organization by pet owners. It currently houses five rhesus macaques that were retired by research facilities and one vervet monkey that had been kept as a pet.

The facility can house 20 monkeys and expects to operate at full capacity within two years, Kerwin said. If it reaches full capacity, the organization expects to build more enclosures. Every three to five years, the organization hopes to construct one enclosure for 20 monkeys, aiming for a total of five enclosures and 100 monkeys on site.

Kerwin is a former researcher at the primate lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she got to know 97 research monkeys and eventually learned there were no plans to retire them. “They’ve made incredible sacrifices for us,” she said of her desire to build the state’s first monkey sanctuary, “and I want to provide them with the dignity they deserve.”

Many research laboratories don’t believe in retiring their monkeys, Kerwin said, largely because they assume it is cheaper to euthanize them. Primates Inc. is one of only 10 monkey sanctuaries operating in the U.S., and Kerwin hopes hers serves as a “prototype” for others to follow.

“We’re showing everyone that these (sanctuaries) can work in any climate,” Kerwin said of operating in a cold-weather state like Wisconsin. Its outdoor enclosure is connected to an indoor enclosure but not used during the winter. However, the organization is now constructing two greenhouse enclosures that, beginning this winter, will provide additional enrichment for the monkeys during cold-weather months.

“People who come here will see this facility is very well maintained, very secure and that the animals are all healthy, taken care of and very, very loved,” said Amber Zorn, an animal caretaker and one of five part-time staff members the group employs.

Caretakers perform day-to-day feeding of the monkeys and clean their enclosures and provide them with enrichment activities and positive-reinforcement training.

Human interactions with the monkeys are limited — “They need to be around other monkeys,” Zorn said — but the ones that were kept as pets, such as “Bella,” the vervet monkey, “will often crave human attention” and get special attention such as back scratches from the caretakers.

Primates Inc. strongly discourages pet ownership of monkeys “because they’re wild animals,” Zorn said, “and it’s tough to provide for any exotic animal.”

In addition to the caretakers on staff, Primates Inc. receives help from more than 50 volunteers per year, including some landscaping help it received from a local 4-H group Tuesday, Kerwin said.

Students from the Wisconsin Academy private school in Columbus helped the nonprofit build trenches for its enclosures, Kerwin added, and the nonprofit hopes to involve other youth and community groups at the facility going forward.

“We truly want to be part of this community,” Kerwin said. “We’re so thankful for everyone’s support.”

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