“Dad, can I get a monkey?”
“Monkeys are awesome!”
“It could be my service animal”
Versions of this echo in homes everywhere. And Dad or Mom keeps saying no.
But in our house, there was a hitch. On our living room wall are watercolor portraits of two monkeys done by Isabel Cooper, my grandmother, both from her visits as a scientific artist to British Guiana. One is a marmoset, named Sadie Volvisch, painted in 1921. The other is a spider Monkey, named Mishkin, painted in 1922. Russia, or maybe immigrant New York City, was the go to place for pet monkey names for the New York Zoological Society’s Department of Tropical Research staff.
Mishkin, by Isabel Cooper
Sadie Volvisch, by Isabel Cooper
My son didn’t just ask for a monkey once, it became a refrain. At some point he started, when he said it, to glance over at the pictures. And in a moment of failed parenting, I mentioned, “your great grandmother had monkeys, those are some of them.”
Monkeys entertained Isabel and her colleagues in the jungle camps of the New York Zoological Society’s Department of Tropical Research, and on the ships they sailed on. One, Sinbad (sometimes spelled Sindbad), was especially a star. He was a black spider monkey, acquired in Panama by the 1923 Harrison Williams Expedition to the Galapagos. William Beebe bought Sinbad in the streets of Panama, where he had found the monkey being mistreated by locals. Sinbad proved to be affectionate, smart, inquisitive, and fun-loving. He was the first monkey that she ever knew that laughed, wrote the expedition historian Ruth Rose.i
William Beebe also bought Chiriqui, a cebus or capuchin monkey–the type used by organ grinders, when the 1925 Arcturus expedition visited Panama on its exploration of the Galapagos.
And it turns out that Isabel kept a monkey, a red spider monkey, possibly Mishkin, pictured above, in her New York City apartment. This was likely when she lived at 136 West 65th Street, now the site of Lincoln Center.
But her spider monkey proved a bad fit as a house pet. Before long, Isabel’s apartment house neighbors complained about the “fog horn” they were hearing. It was the monkey, and it was late at night. She had to evict him to go live at the Bronx Zoo. I like imagining Isabel stepping out on Columbus Avenue and hailing a cab, the monkey at her shoulder.
I’ve tried to be clear on this last point my son, but I don’t think he’s convinced a monkey can’t be a good pet. His great grandmother had monkeys, and besides, monkeys are awesome!
i Ruth Rose, quoting a book by William Beebe, Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society, Vol. 27, No. 1, January 1924.