“That's her at the barn eating a donut … that's her at the starting gate at Gulfstream. There she is at the barn. She comes to my office with me, but sometimes she takes off running into the barn if she sees someone she knows.”
Trainer Terri Pompay is swiping through the photos on her phone and it's hard not to notice that one face keeps coming up. It's not one of her horses, a favorite dog or a human friend.
It's Gemma the spider monkey.
“She goes to Rocco's Tacos, she goes to Anthony's Pizza. If I don't bring her, they get mad at me. She sits at the bar and eats salad and meatballs. She's very cool,” Pompay said. “When we go through the drive through at Starbucks, she likes the lemon loaf and when she sees me going there she squeaks with delight.”
Who doesn't squeak with delight at the prospect of a lemon loaf slice?
Gemma is nearly two years old and very bonded to Pompay, frequently accompanying her to morning training at Gulfstream.
In addition to Gemma, who weighs about seven pounds, Pompay breeds and sells smaller marmosets and tamarins, which top out at one pound each. She estimates she has between 50 and 60 of the smaller monkeys, which are housed in a custom-built barn with several large indoor/outdoor enclosures full of toys while she's at work. When she's home, the monkeys can be let loose in the house and barn or walk around on her shoulder.
Pompay used to raise birds and was at a pet fair in New Jersey years ago when she first saw a tamarin and decided she had to have one of her own. Raising the small monkeys is labor-intensive; some species make better parents than others. Some are known to toss babies soon after giving birth and in Pompay's experience, marmosets will raise two babies and throw or otherwise sabotage a third if they have triplets. She hand-raises the rest, wrapping them in towels or tucking them into bags slung on her shoulder and feeding them every few hours.
Fellow patrons of the grocery stores where Pompay shops probably think she's the healthiest person they've ever seen. She buys huge quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables and chops three days' worth of food at a time for the monkeys. She mixes rice cereal in for some variety and hires help to make sure all of them get their nutritious meals three times a day while she works. That's on top of feeding Gemma, who needs some help to eat, as spider monkeys do not have thumbs and therefore have some difficulty holding small items. (Spider monkeys gradually evolved without thumbs because their natural state swinging through trees did not require them.)
Monkeys also must receive considerable social interaction to keep them stimulated, and Pompay says they do best in domestic situations if they meet their human while they are still young. They're not the right pet for everyone but with her ability to take Gemma to and from work on most days, Pompay is able to keep her busy and happy. Spider monkeys are not typically litter box or toilet-trained, and instead Gemma wears a diaper on her outings with Pompay.
“She loves coming to work with me,” said Pompay. “If I leave her at home she sulks. The horses are not afraid of her at all, even with all her antics.”
All 50 of the monkeys in Pompay's care are named and their bloodlines maintained to avoid interbreeding. Pompay knows every one of their quirks and health histories by memory. Part of her job as a breeder also requires Pompay to know state laws regarding domestic monkeys. Some states require a special license to have a spider monkey like Gemma, but not the smaller tamarins and marmosets. Some do not allow them at all. In Florida, Pompay is required to have a license for Gemma requiring an extensive application, demonstration of knowledge and experience of Gemma's needs and references from veterinarians or university experts.
Pompay admits Gemma and her troop of smaller monkeys are a lot of work but for her, they're well worth it. She hopes to one day scale back her horse training operation and focus on life at the farm – which will include a lot of time with the monkeys.
“I enjoy feeding the little babies. Right now, it's just a hobby but it kind of went crazy.”
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