Serious Monkey Business

Junior dedicates service, research to threatened monkeys in South Africa

By Magazine Staff  |  Photographs courtesy of Mark Mrzyglocki
Three Vervet monkeys

Twenty years ago Dave Du Toit and Arthur Hunt found an orphaned monkey in South Africa. Unsure how to care for it, the friends called the country’s version of the SPCA. The response? “Put it in a bag and hit it with a shovel until it doesn’t move anymore.”

Even when armed police arrived, Du Toit and Hunt refused to let them kill the animal—a Vervet monkey listed on the country’s vermin list. Instead they named him Regus, took up the cause to change the vermin status, and started taking in more orphaned monkeys. In 1993, they created the Vervet Monkey Foundation.

The story of the foundation’s birth, told around a bonfire in the bush outside Tzaneen, South Africa, takes three hours and serves as a key piece of volunteer orientation. As the burning wood crackles and smokes, volunteers are drawn into a tale that begins with a lone orphaned monkey and transports its listeners to today’s chapter, packed with teams of volunteers, 1,000 monkeys, and an enduring passion for a mislabeled and misunderstood primate.

Creature Comforts

Just months before Mark Mrzyglocki, ’11, found a seat by that fire in the African wilderness, his interest in the Vervet was ignited on a visit to the foundation’s website. When Mrzyglocki realized that he could engage in a hands-on volunteer opportunity with the Vervet monkeys, the biology major knew how he wanted to spend his summer.

His parents, home in Ocean, N.J., supported his plan. “We’ve been traveling since I was a little kid. They were all for it,” said Mrzyglocki, who had been with his family on an African safari—in “ritzy” air-conditioned tents. “They said, ‘Yeah, definitely do something with your summer instead of just sitting around.’”

So Mrzyglocki traded a Jersey summer for two months integrating orphaned baby monkeys into a community of adult monkeys in another enclosure. “I was looking for many things, including how the babies interacted in their new environment, how the social hierarchy changed between the adults, and how the adults viewed the new babies,” he said. “I also participated in daily activities that kept the foundation running, such as bowl washing, fire watch, and construction of new enclosures.”

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Bless the Rains

Mrzyglocki lived in a tent at the foundation site, where the nearest town, Tzaneen, has a population of fewer than 2,500. The sanctuary had two buildings with electricity, no TV, one computer, Internet access that Mrzyglocki described as “horrendous,” and a plastic toilet on top of a hole in the ground. At one point, the sanctuary had no water for 10 days.

“We couldn’t shower. We couldn’t really do anything,” said Mrzyglocki, without a hint of complaint. In 100-plus- degree sunshine, he did manual, outdoor labor all day—chopping food for the monkeys, pounding poles into the ground, doing construction work—all without power tools.

The little available water was used first for monkeys, then for people. “You have to be OK living without what you consider essentials,” Mrzyglocki said. “At the end of the day you just read a book for half an hour and fall asleep.”

There was an orange tree on the site, but Mrzyglocki never tasted the fresh fruit. “There’s monkey food and then there’s people food, and the monkeys come first,” he said. “You don’t take anything from the monkeys.”

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