Smuggling of endangered monkeys taxing South Texas zoo

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) -- Incubators have been brought in and zoo staff are working around the clock to try to keep alive dozens of baby monkeys that have been smuggled into South Texas from Mexico.

Since March, the Gladys Porter Zoo in the border town of Brownsville has been struggling to have enough personnel and equipment to care for 18 infant Mexican spider monkeys and a howler monkey that federal authorities have confiscated from smugglers on separate occasions.

A baby Mexican spider monkey and its parents sit a watchful eye on Monday, June 10, 2024, at an exhibit at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. Eighteen infant spider monkeys have been smuggled in since March and the zoo is caring for them in special quarantined quarters where they are housed in incubators. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“This is deliberate smuggling. And the sad part about it is to get the baby spider monkeys, they killed the mother. And the fact that we've got 19, how many more made it through the border undetected?” Dr. Pat Burchfield, zoo executive director and CEO, told Border Report on Monday.

Officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Texas Parks and Wildlife Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have brought in the monkeys.

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They were found in backpacks and hidden in vehicles at CBP ports of entry and elsewhere on the border.

Some were barely alive.

Some were just weeks old and barely the size of human fist, and others were a few months old.

But all were taken from their mothers and now lack necessary skills that the mother teaches the baby in order to survive in the wild, Burchfield said.

Mexican spider monkeys are an endangered species, as seen on Monday, June 10, 2024, at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“You've taken a monkey from its mother, which would spend several years with in the wild learning how to be a wild monkey," he said.

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These babies need to be hand-fed with syringes every three hours, and they must live in critical-care incubators to keep their bodies warm enough to survive.

That's labor intensive for this zoo, which has 1,500 other species to also care for, Burchfield said.

The zoo has reached out to other zoos for assistance and to see if they can take and care for any of the monkeys.

The zoo also has started a GoFundMe account with a goal of raising $25,000 — as of Monday evening, the account had raised over $1,600.

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Burchfield said the illegal exotic pet smuggling trade is a $7 billion to $20 billion global industry.

And he says Mexican cartels are now getting into the business.

Dr. Pat Burchfield is CEO and executive director of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

"Now we have major crime organizations involved in trafficking animals," said Burchfield, who has worked with Mexican officials for years helping to track and with conservation efforts of the Kemp's ridley sea turtle.

"Wildlife trafficking has become a major crime worldwide," he said.

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In 2022, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents and other law enforcement partners investigated over 10,000 wildlife trafficking cases and collected over $11,000,000 in criminal penalties, the agency said.

The baby monkey business in the U.S., he says, is fueled by buyers who think the baby monkeys "are cute."

The monkeys can sell for upwards of $8,000 each.

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But he says they don't make good pets and are illegal to own unless purchased from a legal pet trader.

An exhibit of Mexican spider monkeys at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

They can also bring in parasites and diseases, and can carry human diseases. That's why the 19 monkeys are currently quarantined at the zoo in a special facility, Burchfield said.

When older, the monkeys will also be prone to biting and not suited for domestic life, he said.

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Young zoo visitors Aden, Emiliano and Alina Acosta of Peñitas, Texas, say they like to come look at the monkeys but they wouldn't want one as a pet.

"They're dangerous and they can mess up everything inside. They can go really crazy," Alina, 8, said.

"Keep them in the zoo," her 10-year-old brother Emiliano said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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