Evan Prince

Words by Stephanie Martin
Photos by Evan Prince

Dilley, Texas, population 3,674, is a small city approximately 150 miles southwest of Austin. With gravel roads and tiny street signs you would almost have to stop (or at least squint) to read, Dilley is the kind of town you would find in a Cormac McCarthy novel, minus the grizzly deaths and with significantly more women. After asking a local farmer for directions, we drove down a long stretch of road until our trip was abruptly concluded by a series of locked gates. A sign on the front gate read, “Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary. No public access.” See, unbeknownst to most Texans, excluding the residents of Dilley, there are also monkeys roaming around the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary: population 580.

Born Free houses a large population of Japanese macaques, or Japanese snow monkeys, and while it may seem unusual for these primates to live outside of San Antonio instead of Japan, their roots in the Lone Star State date back to the early 1970s. The original troop of snow monkeys lived in the Arashiyama forest on the western outskirts of Kyoto, Japan, where primate behaviorist observed them since the 1950s. In the early 1970s, a subset of the troop made their way into Kyoto in search of food and other resources. Residents of Kyoto grew wary of the encroaching monkeys and eradication was imminent.

Concerned American students studying abroad collected private donations to ship the monkeys to the United States. The political climate resulting from American involvement in the Vietnam War forced the shipment of the monkeys to be performed in secrecy. In 1972, the troop was successfully shipped to Encinal, Texas where a sanctuary was established. The troop was moved twice more, eventually ending up in Dilley, Texas where the primates currently reside. The sanctuary changed hands and eventually became the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary.

Tim Ajax, director of the sanctuary, led us through the gates onto the property. Although a few Japanese macaques freely roam the sanctuary, the majority of the primate population, which also includes baboons, vervets, and several others species of macaques, lives within several large enclosures. The enclosures vary in size: small enclosures house recent additions to the sanctuary, as well as primates not yet ready to be integrated into larger social groups. Large enclosures house both populations of single species and some mixed populations of multiple species.

Many of the inhabitants of the sanctuary are former pets, research subjects, or roadside zoo animals found in abusive and exploitative living conditions. Freeman, a long-tailed macaque and a former pet, spent over 10 years in abusive captivity, where he was force-fed booze and other human vices not intended for non-human primates. Thankfully, the owner was convinced to surrender Freeman by a friend of their family.

Other primates at Born Free who share similar stories of abuse and neglect are kept in their own smaller enclosures while they are socialized with other primates and reintroduced to more natural environments. Due to increased aggression that resulted from years of abuse and neglect, some of the primates kept as pets and research subjects showed visible signs of trauma and were extremely territorial. For our safety, Ajax advised us to keep our distance from the enclosures and to avoid making eye contact so as not to display aggression.

The largest enclosure at the sanctuary, an enormous 56 acres, currently houses 237 Japanese snow monkeys, the descendents of the original wild population that were transplanted from Japan. Surprising as it may seem, the snow monkeys have adapted to the harsh Texas climate and new suite of Texas predators. The monkeys’ coats have thinned and they reserve activity to dusk and dawn, spending midday sitting in the shade or wading in the expansive man-made lakes in their enclosure. They alert each other to rattlesnakes and bobcats and live a life as close to one in the wild as possible.

The troop of snow monkeys at Born Free are less aggressive than the baboons we encountered in the smaller enclosures; in fact, we were able to feed them peanuts, their snack of choice (or preference). Like metropolitan pigeons to the sound of seeds, a sub-troop of snow monkeys emerged to chow down on the peanuts we threw to the ground. There is something unsettling about being surrounded by a troop of no less than twenty semi-wild monkeys, and while these monkeys are less aggressive than others, I was still nervous. Thankfully, our guide broke apart the circle that formed around us, letting us know that letting a group of snow monkeys circle you would be bad news bears — or monkeys, as it were.

The Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary, however, is nothing to be afraid of. Although I was nervous about the snow monkeys for a brief moment, they are able to live their lives free from human threats, with similar freedom their ancestors had in Japan. The primate sanctuary is a secret world in the Texas outskirts, and though Dilley, TX appears to be a quiet Texas town, many grateful monkeys can call it home for the foreseeable future.

To donate or adopt a monkey of your own, check out Born Free USA’s website.