For the longest time, Pepe’s movement was limited to the length of his chain. Restriction was all he knew, day in and day out, until one day a human approached him. After some effort they took Pepe’s collar off, and a feeling of freedom washed over him.
Spider monkeys are a species of primate that live wild in tropical rainforests in Mexico, Brazil, and other parts of South and Central America. At least, they’re supposed to, but some are not so fortunate. Take Pepe, for instance – he spent almost a decade in a terrible form of captivity.
That’s because Pepe fell into the hands of circus owners in Cusco, Peru, who made him perform publicly. The spider monkey was likely trafficked at a young age, and spent eight years under tight restraint. During that time, Pepe knew nothing of freedom.
The circus staff kept Pepe on a chain which was in turn attached to the collar around his neck. Not only did this limit his movement, but his tormentors also implemented other cruel methods of animal control. For example, they broke Pepe’s teeth to stop him biting.
In addition, Pepe suffered emotional issues as a result of being separated from other spider monkeys. There are laws against keeping circus animals in Peru, but some owners still flout them. That was how Pepe came to the attention of Animal Defenders International (ADI).
ADI is an animal rights group with bases in Columbia, the U.S.A. and London. As well as campaigning, it also takes a more active role in rescuing creatures such as Pepe. That was the case during a project called Operation Spirit of Freedom.
The Peruvian government initiated undercover investigations alongside ADI to enforce the country’s animal protection laws. The scale of the problem uncovered, however, exceeded all expectations. Circuses like the one keeping Pepe had massive numbers of animals, so Operation Spirit of Freedom moved to liberate them.
In fact, the operation in Peru which freed Pepe was one of the largest single circus liberations on record. Heartwarmingly, Pepe’s moment of freedom was actually caught on camera. The footage reveals Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips, ADI’s co-founders, removing Pepe’s chains.
“The collar was wired on, it was never meant to come off him,” Phillips explains in a June 2018, Animal Planet video upload. This fact makes the chain’s removal all the more important, and Pepe reacts in the most remarkable way. He looks deeply into his rescuer’s eyes as they set him free.
However, Pepe’s rescue was just the start of his journey. He had a long road to recovery ahead of him, and needed to heal on both a physical and an emotional level. ADI began by fixing the damage inflicted on the little monkey’s teeth.
Pepe’s rescuers arranged for the veterinary world’s premier dentist to begin work on the oral trauma. But perhaps the deepest wounds were the ones that came from the monkey’s long isolation. Phillips and Creamer worked hard to fix those as best they could.
Pepe’s recovery time revealed him to be a loving and affectionate primate who longed for contact. “He needed to be held,” Creamer said on a video for Animal Planet uploaded by animals website The Dodo in June, 2018. “He needed physical comfort to counter the loneliness.”
And so that’s what ADI provided for Pepe, and Creamer in particular bonded tightly with him. She admitted that he was the first animal she spent time with whenever she visited the rescue center. On the other hand, his rescuer also knew Pepe’s human reliance wasn’t ideal.
“Pepe is very attached to human beings and loves touching and cuddling,” Creamer explained. But the ultimate goal was to give Pepe as close an experience to a natural life as possible. Bearing that in mind, he needed the company of another spider monkey.
As luck would have it, January 2015 saw ADI free a female spider monkey called Valerie. Before her rescue, the monkey’s owners had forced her to perform for restaurant customers. Phillips and Creamer thought she would make an ideal partner for Pepe, and arranged for the two to meet.
Because Pepe hadn’t met another spider monkey before, ADI approached the situation carefully. Rescue center staff introduced Pepe and Valerie slowly at first. They were in separate but neighboring enclosures so they could still see each other without full contact. They needn’t have worried though; the primates bonded famously.
Creamer voiced her feelings on ADI’s official website on February 12, 2015. “Pepe is a gentle soul with a big heart,” she said. “And we are absolutely thrilled to see him and Valerie together knowing they both spent so many years alone.”
“It was a very emotional moment,” ADI’s co-founder continued. “Pepe has been incredibly affectionate with all of us. But we knew that what he really needed was someone of his own kind to love.” It was a heartwarming result for both spider monkeys.
But the monkey couple’s story doesn’t end there. Although Pepe and Valerie met at the rescue center, ADI never intended them to live there. Instead, rescuers took 39 monkeys, including the kissing couple, to Pilpintuwasi, a protected sanctuary in the Amazon jungle. Creamer described the moment to the Dodo in April , 2015.
“When we got to the end we all cried,” Creamer said. “Their response was just wonderful. They ran all around, swinging on the vines – they were just fascinated by the trees. Just with us these past six or seven months, [Pepe’s] learned a different kind of life. That he could have freedom, and most importantly that he would never be hurt.”