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Doyli and two monk sakis

Meeting Doyli and Discovering a Family-Run Monkey Sanctuary

When I arrived at what I came to think of as “Doyli’s Island,” I wasn’t even aware that a young girl lived there. The first person I met there was a man named Gilberto.

Paul, our Amazonian guide, explained to us that Gilberto had turned his island home into a monkey sanctuary, where he devoted his life to saving endangered wild primates native to the area.

Uncle Gilberto, director of Amazon monkey sanctuaryUncle Gilberto’s story was amazing and inspiring to me because of its altruism and perseverance. He had given up a lucrative career by Amazon standards, spending his life in the monkeys’ jungle home, putting all his money toward saving monkeys.

I was concentrating my attention at first on Gilberto, straining to understand his broken English, which was still worlds better than my non-existent Spanish. Paul, our guide, was doing a nice job translating, but also has a heavy accent. It took all my mental energy to piece together Gilberto’s story.

Still, I was often distracted. My attention was stolen by the surrounding endangered, exotic monkeys in the trees, chattering away. It was hard not to watch all the capering monkeys instead of listening to Gilberto.

But, also, there was this girl.

Doyli and howler monkey

Doyli with baby howler monkey.

Pony-tailed and sporting pink sandals, she seemed to have an ever-present smile. She strolled past cradling a fat-bellied howler, and I half-listened to Gilberto as she disappeared around the corner of the hut. Once she was gone, I turned my full focus back to Gilberto, who told me of his years working as a jungle-lodge bartender. All through those years, he longed to save the monkeys that he could see disappearing before his eyes in the surrounding Amazon rainforest.

But, then, the girl was back. Dangling a three-toed baby sloth by the wrists, she dodged its six little knives. Gone again, I listened as Gilberto told of saving money for nine years to buy this island.

In the background, a monk saki (a large, white-faced monkey) climbed to the ceiling’s cross beam and splay like a squirrel on a branch on a hot day. Gilberto’s island was a remarkable place, a true place of safety for all sorts of animals. Doyli passed by again, this time singing to a bright parrot on her forearm.

Gilberto told me how heartbreaking it was to see the dying baby monkeys in the illegal “black market” in Iquitos, a jungle city several hours away by boat ride, knowing he could do nothing to save them since police often turn a blind eye. Trying to buy the little monkeys, he knew, often just opened a new spot on the market “shelf.” Instead, he encouraged the local police to crack down on the monkey peddlers, and did what he could to rescue, feed, and care for the baby monkeys that he could manage to bring back to his small island.

When the girl paraded past with two saddle-backed tamarinds perched on her head and shoulder, she had me. It seemed that this young girl played a key role in Gilberto’s sanctuary program. Doyli flourished her arms this way and that, showing off a little. The tamarinds’ little hands patted her face and arms, twisting their necks so they could get their faces close to hers.

I couldn’t believe it. I had been on the island only a short time, but had already learned that while we could hold and cuddle, feed and cradle almost every other monkey, the saddle-backed “tams” would not be touched. We couldn’t get within fifty feet of them. When our family tried to approach the girl to get a closer look, both tamarinds streaked into the trees leaving us wishing we, too, could hold them or see them up close. They cocked their heads this way and that looking at us with bright curiosity from their safe distance.

Doyli and baby sloth

Doyli holds a baby sloth.

But, the girl? She was their mother (“She is ALL the monkeys’ mother,” Gilberto said). She approached the tree, held out her arm, and the tamarinds sprang once again onto her shoulder and head.

Who was this little girl? I admit I felt a little jealous! Why did I not get to grow up this way, surrounded by animals, caring for them, enjoying their friendship in return?

She was Doyli, Gilberto’s niece, and, as I was to learn, she was a true wildlife heroine in her own right. And she was only ten years old.

– Cathleen Burnham

Cathleen Burnham is a documentary photographer & author of Doyli to the Rescue: Saving Baby Monkeys in the Amazon (Crickhollow Books, 2015), which tells the story of this young animal-rescue hero who lives on an island sanctuary for endangered Amazon monkeys and other animals.

Doyli to the Rescue: Saving Baby Monkeys in the Amazon Rainforest
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