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This Monkey’s Gone to Hell—and Back

A thriving black market in primates leads Saratoga’s Tracey Buyce to Bolivia to tell their stories in photographs

by Ali Hibbs on May 14, 2014


He went back every day for more than a year and begged for the monkey. Kept chained outdoors for the first 10 years of her life, Maruka had eaten only junk food and been regularly beaten by her “owners.” Neighborhood children threw rocks at her almost every day. And so Marcelo returned every day with nutritious food for the black spider monkey and continued to beg.

When her “owners” finally realized that they were unable to handle the grown primate, they attempted first to abandon her. Knowing no other family and having nowhere else go, Maruka returned to her abusers. By the time they called Marcelo to come and get her, they had beaten Maruka so severely that she had been blinded in one eye and had a broken nose and jaw—injuries sustained while they were attempting to pull out her teeth with pliers.


And so Maruka became one of the first monkeys at La Senda Verde, an animal refuge in Bolivia founded by the perseverant Marcelo Levy and his partner, Vicky Ossio. Originally conceived of as an eco-tourism destination when founded in 2003, La Senda Verde quickly changed focus after rescuing two parrots and a capuchin monkey in 2004. As the result of a recent dramatic increase in illegal animal trafficking in Bolivia, the sanctuary is now home to approximately 450 animals of various species, and welcomes new animals often.

“Did you know that for every one baby monkey that is sold on the black market, 8 to 10 mothers and babies die in the process?” asks Saratoga Springs-based photographer Tracey Buyce. “There’s not a lot of information out there if you just do an Internet search; I had to learn a lot of this stuff firsthand. They go into the Amazon or the Cloud Forest; they shoot the mother; they take the baby. And, in transit, the babies die from things like poor diet, so that maybe one in 10 even makes it to the black market where they’re sold for, get this, 10 U.S. dollars.” If the trafficker has to travel the two and a half hours to the nearest large city of La Paz, Buyce says that the price jumps to $100.

An active member of Photographers Without Borders, Buyce recently spent two weeks at La Senda Verde, using her talents to document and spread awareness of the prevalence and evils of illegal animal trafficking and the associated abuse of these animals. This is not the first time she has taken up the cause for another species; Buyce was featured in a Metroland article just last year for work she does with an organization called CANDi International, saving homeless and starving dogs in Mexican and Latin American resort towns.

Born in Albany and raised in Northville on Great Sacandaga Lake, Buyce did not take up photography as a child, but always was surrounded by animals—cats, dogs, and sometimes guinea pigs and a rabbit. Her father, the late John Buyce, was a supervisor for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and instilled in her a love for nature and the importance of giving back. She came to photography while a returning student at the College of Saint Rose; while finishing a degree in speech language pathology, during her last semester she decided to take a black-and-white darkroom introductory course. “It was like a whole different part of my brain opened up,” she says.

Buyce now has a business as a wedding photographer, shooting approximately 30 weddings a year. “My primary photography supports my volunteer photography,” she says, referring to the more than half-dozen trips she has made in the last few years volunteering for CANDi and Photographers Without Borders on behalf of animals.

In 2011, while on vacation in Mexico with her husband, Pete Ostwald, Buyce was struck by the sight of the many stray and emaciated dogs outside her hotel; research into the issue led her to CANDi. Ostwald has not accompanied Buyce on subsequent trips.

“He’s very supportive of what I do, but it’s not for him,” she says. “He said I can go on as many volunteer trips as I want, but I can’t bring back another dog. And I respect that.”

Ostwald and Buyce have two dogs, a cat and a horse. “He takes care of our animals while I’m away, and he’s very proud of what I do.”

Although La Senda Verde is home to many native Bolivian species, Buyce says that she was really drawn to the refuge because of the work they do with primates: super-smart capuchins, adorable Bolivian night monkeys, matriarchal black spider monkeys and several other indigenous species.

“They loved the camera!” Buyce says, adding that the monkeys found the tripods particularly irresistible. She tells a story of how one even helped her to clean her camera lens with a little bit of melon. “They’re really inquisitive, really smart, really clean. You really have to earn their trust—they choose you, you don’t choose them.”

Tracey Buyce and friend, photo by Kristi Odom

Buyce says that one of the monkeys, a black spider monkey named Pimienta, chose her on the second day she was at the refuge. “She climbed up the front of me and wrapped her arms and legs and her tail around me and just went to sleep on my chest. And she would drag me around the property and sit me down and go to sleep in my lap. And I basically had to do whatever she wanted me to, because if they feel like they’re being abandoned, they can bite you.”

Buyce was bitten five times while she was there. She has taken photographs of her wounds, which she said she posted to Facebook as a cautionary tale to those who might think that, due to their social nature and humanlike intelligence, these primates might make good pets. “They have not been domesticated for hundreds of years like dogs have. I think maybe the romantic idea of having a monkey and being able to tell your friends about it may seem cool to some people, but if you had been there and seen these monkeys. . . . They’re just not meant to be pets. If it weren’t for La Senda Verde giving them a second chance, they would be dead.”

It’s an all-too-common story, said Buyce, that a person purchases a cute baby monkey on the black market and then, when the animal grows too large for the purchaser to effectively control, they attempt to beat the animal into submission before killing or abandoning it. Monkeys that have grown up with a parent—even an abusive one—have become domesticated, says Buyce, and those that have lived as pets are no longer equipped to survive in the very environment from which they were so violently stolen.

While Bolivia has laws against illegally trafficking animals, the practice has been on the rise during the last several years, and the government has been widely blamed for inadequate enforcement of those laws. Petitions begging the government to crack down on the problem are circulating online and, along with two or three concerned organizations, provide some of the only social acknowledgement of the issue.

“For the first time in Bolivian history,” says Buyce, “an animal dealer went to jail last year in Santa Cruz. There have always been laws but, when a country is as poor as Bolivia, animals are probably not high on the priority list.” There may have been another trafficker who went to jail last week, Buyce thinks, but the news seems not to have made any Internet headlines.

That is why it’s so important, she believes, that places like La Senda Verde exist. Home to 28 different species of animal, including two bears and lots of birds, La Senda Verde acquired certification as a nonprofit in 2008, after being approved by the Environmental Department of Affairs and the La Paz Government. This certification made it easier for the refuge to admit new animals under governmental guidelines and, according to Buyce, also obligated them to accept any and all animals intercepted by the Bolivian government. “So,” she says, “while they get no funding from the government, they have to take any animals the government brings them.” Volunteers, she says, provide the majority of their funding. There are also private donations and there is a continuing search for grants.

Buyce knows that donations are important, but what she really likes to talk about is “the power of volunteering.” She worries that Americans too often shy away from opportunities to volunteer in developing countries. “You don’t have to be a photographer to go to a Third World country. I think, as a generalization, Americans are taught to be afraid of third-world countries.”

“Less than 2 percent of the volunteers [at La Senda Verde] were Americans,” she says with some frustration. “There were so many volunteers from Europe and Australia. They have a real impression of Americans as being afraid of so much of the world.” She tends not to disagree either. Admitting that she was raised to perceive certain areas of the world with a degree of fear, Buyce says that she has found that way of thinking to be the societal norm.

“When I told people about this Bolivia trip, and every time I go to Mexico, and recently went to the Dominican Republic, every time I tell people about where I’m traveling, they’re almost always like, ‘Oh my god. Aren’t you scared?’ And, I mean, I was walking around drug-dealer neighborhoods in Mexico, a 6-foot blonde carrying a $10,000 camera, and nobody bothered me!”

“I was scared to go to Bolivia at first,” she admits. “But I decided I was going to do it—to do something that scared me—and I couldn’t believe how much I had worked myself up once I got there. It was just so great.”

Buyce has been able to use her talents to help illuminate the plight of these exotic animals and others, but she insists that anyone can help using any means—even if that means just sending money. “I really recommend going to these places and having these experiences,” she says. But she also pointed out that just $25 could save a dog’s life and that $30 can feed a monkey for a month. “Americans spend more on pet supplies than anyone else. And I like to buy things for my animals too. But just a little bit of that could really help suffering animals in other parts of the world.”

As for Maruka, it took her three months to get close to anyone at the refuge, but Buyce says that she eventually did approach Vicky Ossio. She hugged Ossio and then sat in her lap while she cried. Today, Maruka is not only thriving—she is now the “alpha” monkey at La Senda Verde.

If you happen to be an illegal monkey owner in New York state who is suddenly realizing the error of your ways, Buyce suggests contacting the Primate Sanctuary in Niagara Falls.


UPDATE: Paragraph 18 was corrected to note that, one, volunteers provide much of the financial support, and, two, there is no elephant.