Monkey business: Teacher spends a summer with the monkeys in Sri Lanka
October 11, 2001
Laura Spain almost started her summer trip to Sri Lanka with a bang.
“The day I was supposed to land, the airport was actually bombed by the Tamil Tiger rebels – the terrorists over there,” she said.
Fortunately, the rest of her trip was without major revolutionary incidents. In fact, most of it was spent monkeying around – literally.
Spain traveled to Sri Lanka on a scholarship from the Earthwatch group to help in a study of the Toque Macaque monkeys.
“I’ve always loved monkeys,” she said. “I think everybody has a curiosity about them.”
Like most people, Spain’s curiosity about monkeys was mere fancy, not academic. Spain’s background is in outdoor recreation, leadership and teaching grades 1-3 at Prosser Creek Charter School in Truckee. But her lack of a biology degree didn’t keep her from applying for the teacher scholarship from Earthwatch, which paid for most of the trip.
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“I kind of had the attitude of ‘what the hell, I’ll try it, I have nothing to loose,'” she said. “Next thing I knew, I get my letter back and I have to break the map out because I have no idea where Sri Lanka is.”
Sri Lanka is an island country lying off the peninsula of India in the Indian Ocean. Spain studied the macaque near the city of Polonnaruwa on the eastern side of the island. Although the monkeys mostly lived in “beautiful ancient ruins that are at least 1,000 to 1,200 years old,” much of her time studying the monkeys was in the Sri Lankan evergreen forests.
“It’s just thick, thick jungle stuff. You have to crouch down, you’re on your hands and knees for three hours of the day sometimes,” she said. “You’re totally groveling out there, crawling around.”
Spain’s groveling was part of a study by Dr. Wolfgang Dittus of the Smithsonian Institution to learn more about the ecology and behaviors of the macaque monkeys. Spain studied the eating, sleeping, grooming, foraging and traveling habits of one macaque group. And specifically the behaviors of an alpha female macaque named Nadsa, whom Spain described as an incredible mother, but with a tendency to wander off from the pack.
“They were pretty habituated,” Spain said about the monkeys she studied. “You could get pretty close to them.”
Spain got closest to the monkeys during a “medical day” where 35 monkeys were trapped, tattooed and checked for health problems. But her most memorable moment working with the monkeys was when she witnessed a baby monkey left behind by its mother who was feeding off of berry bushes.
“The entire group was up ahead and these adolescent monkeys, they were basically babysitting him,” she said. “It was the most incredible thing.”
Another “incredible” part of Spain’s trip was the two weeks she spent traveling by herself through the country before the study began. After the airport was bombed, she in Malaysia for three days with some Sri Lankans she met who took her in. When she finally entered the country, she toured the beaches, jungles and mountains of the island and was taken aback by the hospitality of the people she met.
“It’s a very, very simple way of living over there and I just love that,” she said. “It definitely gave me a new perspective on life.”
Spain has made her trip part of her curriculum for her students as well. With pictures she took during her trip, she made a children’s book.