Prison Break: escape from monkey island

Eons ago, when I was a teenager in Williamsport, PA, my dad presented me and my brother with a kid’s dream pet. He was passing through a small town in Florida when he spotted Jasper, a young squirrel monkey, chained to an outdoor pole at a gas station.

I actually believe it was dad who wanted the monkey. But my brother and I were a good excuse to get Jasper past my mother and into the family. So he bought the little rascal, cage and all.

Jasper lived with us for several years until he swung one too many times in our neighbors’ trees. On one fateful day, he swung from limb to limb above their picnic table where guests were feasting. Wanting to join the party, Jasper dropped his furry self into a big bowl of potato salad and hopped from plate to plate, carrying off as much food as his scrawny arms could hold. The frightened guests screamed and scattered, perhaps believing that a gorilla wasn’t too far behind. After that, Jasper was sent back to Florida as fast as we could arrange his getaway, before the police could find him and haul him away.

The Jasper Experience doesn’t qualify me as a monkey expert. But loving memories of him surfaced when I took part in a recent monkey drama on Lake Nicaragua.

A few weeks ago, word came to me through emails from strangers telling me of an abandoned monkey on one of the isletas off the shore of Granada. They had spotted its white furry face peering out from thick clumps of foliage as they passed the tiny island in tour boats. All reported on its sad condition—it was starved, alone and anxious.

So I drove down to the docks, armed with questions for the boat operators. All of them knew of the monkey; they had all seen it many times, but everyone had a different story for how it came to be there.

Hoping to personally meet the marooned monkey, I hired a young boat operator named Freddy and we took off for the isleta bearing gifts that any primate would love: bananas, mangoes, jocote, tomatoes and—yes—dog biscuits. This last delicacy was recommended by a Facebook reader who just happened to be an expert regarding primate nutrition. Who would have guessed?

Freddy recited the background story while our boat churned through the water towards the Simian Alcatraz: The monkey had been the pet of a woman who lived on one of the isletas. She decided to leave the country, but not before dropping it off in a most unlikely spot for survival—on one of the smallest isletas, with no fruit trees or other means of food, no other monkey friends, and no living creatures of any kind. It was, in every sense of the word, a deserted island. Small wonder that the animal was emaciated and extremely hyper when our boat approached her.

Monkey senses a boat approaching her island prison (photo/ Alexandro Quino)

“How could the monkey survive this long?” I asked Freddy.

“Tourists throw her a banana once in a while,” he said. “Do you have any bananas?”

“I do!” I held up a bulging plastic bag filled with fruits.

“Could I have one?” He asked, rubbing a bulging belly. I begrudgingly threw one to him, but I held back from asking why HE hadn’t fed the monkey if he knew she was starving.

Freddy moved the boat closer to shore while I watched the monkey swing closer to the water and nearer to our boat. She was no dummy. She must have sensed that I had a bad pitching arm and would never land the fruit on the dry rocks between her and us. She would need to stretch those spindly arms to catch the bananas before they sank to the bottom of the lake.

In a matter of minutes, the monkey skillfully caught each and every fruit tossed to her. I can now vouch that monkeys actually DO smile and laugh. She jumped and danced with each catch, then devoured the fruit as though they were no bigger than insects.

As exciting as the food barrage was for the monkey, it was unforgettable for me. And this was just the beginning. No way would I leave this living creature on its postage -stamp piece of land. A plan to get her off of it and to relocate her had to be put in place.

But how and where? A common suggestion was to transport her to the Isla de Monos, another island that severs as sort of a monkey colony on the lake. But perhaps she had come from there in the first place. Perhaps she had been aggressive and didn’t fit in. That wouldn’t work. The chance of putting her in danger was a big one.

On dry land again, away from the shrieking primate, my thoughts could begin to fall into place. It was suggested that I contact MARENA, Nicaragua’s environment and natural resources ministry. Good idea…at least I thought so at the time.

The MARENA ordeal began the next day, a Friday. I entered their Granada office and made it simple. Help needed for starving monkey stranded on an isleta. Had I asked where the women’s rest room was, I might have gotten a more lively response.

Come back on Monday and file a report, said the MARENA official, without any hint of interest or sympathy. One would have to assume that this was an environmental ministry official who hadn’t yet grasped the concept of starvation.

I returned Monday. This time someone took some notes, or I ASSUME he was taking notes, in a not-too-official-looking notebook. But he said he would send in my report.

“But when can you rescue the monkey?” I asked. “She’s in danger RIGHT NOW! She… has… NO… FOOD!”

“We’ll go tomorrow.” I was told. The answer was so familiar. I had heard it before in countless other situations. My hope was dimming.

I returned to the MARENA office the next day. I feel safe in saying that not one employee in the office had moved from his or her position from my previous visit. Everyone was in exactly the same place, doing whatever it is that they do, which very well may be nothing.

This time I snarled and bared some teeth. Someone told me that first I would have to file a report with MAGFOR, the ministry of forestry and agriculture, in another building. Strange, I thought, that it took days to inform me of this. But I followed the lead and found the other office, waited for at least a half hour only to be told that I should take this request to the office of MARENA.

I returned to MARENA, now lacking both hope and patience. When the MARENA official told me again “we’ll go for the monkey tomorrow,” I turned on the waterworks. I threw in some woeful sobs and even shook a little. Someone brought me a chair and a glass of water.

I admit that I considered a fainting spell, but figured that might be overkill. So I just continued to cry. I needed it and it felt good.

The young man with the notebook full of doodles appeared and, with his poised pencil ever at the ready, asked once again for the location of the monkey. We were back to zero. I needed a new plan.

At this point, I was determined to return to the isleta. But this time, I would go in the company of someone who really does know about monkeys. That person is George Russell, an expat who came to Nicaragua from Washington state 10 years ago. George knows a lot about monkeys as well as other wildlife and farm animals. Having already rescued several monkeys in jeopardy, he was open to the idea of helping with this rescue and adopting the monkey afterwards.

We plotted our monkey-nap. Two other conspirators, Alejandro Quinos and Roberto Robleto, a Red Cross employee, would join us. We didn’t want to overdo it with too many hands on deck. But we weren’t sure what we would confront when we tried to capture the monkey, and if we would have to force her into a kennel.

We discussed the possibility of tranquilizing her, but decided against it. George was certain that we would have no problems enticing her in the large kennel with fruits.

Lupita the monkey is thankful for a meal (photo/ Alexandro Quino)

On our way to the isleta we decided that her name would be Lupita ….as in our community animal clinic, Casa Lupita. As we approached, we spotted her in the distance, shrieking and jumping wildly when she noticed our boat. I choose to believe that she knew we were coming to take her to a new home. She swung from a tree branch and dropped to a rock that jutted out on the water, stretching her long arm as if to help us ashore. For a moment I considered that she was trying to reach the bow so she could pull up our boat. But it turned out she was mostly interested in bananas.

To the surprise of all of us, it didn’t take much to convince her to come along for the ride. After some nonsense monkey talk, she walked off her personal turf and into our world. She entered the kennel on her own, sat down and peeled a banana, oblivious to the metal door that now incarcerated her. She would stop munching for a few seconds to check us out, but we were definitely upstaged by that bunch of bananas.

Travelling back to the Granada shore, we reveled in the day’s victory—for the monkey’s sake more than ours. It was then that we realized the tension we had carried with us just moments ago. It felt so good to let it go and to enjoy our “captive” who was busy with her private banquet.

At George’s “monkey haven” on Carretera Nandaime, Lupita was introduced to her new home and welcomed by her cage-mate, Peppi Marcel, a beautiful, bright Capuchin monkey. It was love at first sight, though George reminded us that monkeys of different species don’t mate.

Peppi Marcel seemed thrilled with a new friend; Lupita was interested in her new digs. They romped, swung and chattered together in a huge airy cage that appeared to have no beginning or end.

When we checked on the duo hours later, Peppi was busy grooming Lupita who was stretched out, enjoying the luxury of being pampered.

I left them to each other, knowing that my “good-bye” fell on deaf monkey ears. “Soul mates,” I thought, knowing that everything was as it should be.

Donna Tabor graduated from Pennsylvania State University where she majored in journalism. She worked in TV production as a documentary producer-writer before joining Peace Corps in 1996, which brought her to Nicaragua. After her two years of PC service, she remained here as Project Director for Building New Hope, a Pittsburgh-based NGO.


  • Jim

    Granada is a better place because Donna Tabor lives here.

  • fred belland

    Good on Donna Tabor- she has been tilting at windmills and tweeking the collective noses of uncaring officialdom here since 1996– and she’s only 39 years old! God bless ye.

  • Micha

    Here’s to a happier ending than I could have imagined. Donna’s persistent spirit is inspiring. Best wishes to Lupita and Pepi Marcel!

  • Carlotta Chamorro

    I trade places with the Island monkey!

  • Brett

    Santa Donita (potty mouth), you are incredible!! Still saving anything with a beating heart. What a gift you are to all the creatures of Nicaragua. Love you and Miss you!

  • kit cooper

    Rescue extraordinaire!! That poor little face is so thin. Bet you were giddy with success all the way home. Lupita is a nice addition to you menagerie, don George!

  • Judy Duran

    Wonderful story! Wonderful picture! Wonderful lady!

  • Michelle Ortega

    Donna – What I would have paid to have seen you in the office with the water works …. You should have taken Mercedes with you – the pair of you would have been a hoot (but she’s good too – I’m tellin ya … ) 😉
    Love ya!!!

  • ReZoom

    Donna, Da Do-Gooder dat really do good! Thanx for being you.

  • mike

    Shouldn’t feed dog food to a monkey. There’s grit in it that helps with a dog’s digestion but can cause internal bleeding in a monkey. Ralston-Purina actually makes Monkey Chow, in addition to Dog Chow and Puppy Chow. My squirrel monkey enjoyed killing insects, too, maybe for the protein and maybe just for the hell of it. He was feisty.

  • donna tabor

    Good to know, Mike. I appreciate this important info. Probably no chance of getting the Purina monkey food here in Nicaragua where it s needed!…., but I ll check to see if I can get it elsewhere.

  • Brian

    Donna, you are a saint. There are many monkeys in Nicaragua who suffer from similar circumstances as well as slightly different ones. I was attacked and very nearly killed from arterial blood loss, drowning and then infection by two large monkeys imprisoned on an isleta off Ometepe Island. They were put there by a hotel owner who keeps them there as well as a neighboring isleta. Problem is that they attack anyone who drifts within reach. By the way, I also only escaped emergency amputation of both my left arm and left leg by a few days.

    I give this warning to anyone approaching such monkeys … They can kill you!

    I do not blame the monkeys, poor things, but something must be done.
    I was expecting a bad ending to your story but I was so happy to wrong.

  • Brian

    Please excuse my typo in the final paragraph … In fact, I was so happy to “be wrong.”

  • Lisa Khajavi


    So nice to hear a happy note. It doesn’t always end up that way- lots of perseverance and caring goes a long way though! I relate to the story as an expat who lived in Costa Rica for 7 years and had the pleasure to visit Nicaragua, including Granada, many times. Thank you for what you did!

  • The Cat

    As always, you have, again, contributed to a great story of helpers in my home country. I’m glad that there were actual Nicaraguans there to assist in the rescue of Lupita. I fear that the new proposed canal will have major negative repercussions on not just Lake Nicaragua, but Las Isletas, as well.

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