Willy: One in Ten by Beth Ann Mathews

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A monkey holding onto a rope


“This here’s a woolly monkey,” Gary said, “from South America. When you’re hosin’ down, keep your hands outside the bars. He’s a bit off. Used to be more friendly. Name’s Willy.”

The monkey glared at me, quivering lips stretched, teeth bared. My heart knocked against my chest.


It was 1973, the summer after my high school graduation. I was training to be the swing keeper at Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville, Indiana, filling in for senior keepers on their days off. Compared to my other jobs, this was a step up in complexity and responsibility.

Gary was my boss, but we looked like twins in our tan safari shirts tucked into jeans. We stood in the dim service area, an alley behind five concrete exhibits in the primate wing of the building. Willy crouched in the far corner of his six-by-six-foot exhibit, next to a wall of glass that separated him from the public. The cage floor sloped back to a hip-height drainage trough. Bars formed the wall on our side. Gary reached through the three-inch gap at the bottom of the bars and dragged out a banged-up metal pan with bits of apple, melon, and dog food-like chunks of Purina Monkey Chow. He set the leftovers on his cart.


In ten weeks, I’d leave my parents and four younger siblings to study math at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Forced to select a major, I checked the box next to Mathematics on the application because it was my favorite subject, but I couldn’t envision a career in that field. My two older sisters were away at different colleges, and they told me I would love it.

My mother had encouraged me to apply for the zoo job. Under Past Employment, I mentioned babysitting, waitressing at a bowling alley’s short-order counter, and cleaning kennels for a veterinarian.  She told me to also mention how much I liked dogs, and that our family had two Irish setters—a mother and one of her daughters—a puppy I helped raise. Many Saturdays, I’d gone with my mother to take our family’s younger setter to the 4-H training school. At home, I walked gangly Ginger in brisk figure eights around the driveway, coaxing her to heel, sit, and stay.

When Gary called, I ran to tell my mother. She was as excited as I was.


My job in the primate wing was to clean a dozen enclosures before the zoo opened at ten, then perform various behind-the-scenes tasks—feed the animals, clean their exhibits, and monitor their behavior for signs of sickness or injury. Gary had hired me based on the slim resume of a teenager. Because I was so into math, an equation formed in my head: babysitting + walking dogs + waitressing = zookeeper.

“What do you mean, off?” I asked.

The monkey’s thick, cinnamon-colored fur covered most of his body and continued like a black helmet up over his head and onto his heavy brow. Below eyes close-set and round, his dark facial skin was bare and rimmed by a chinstrap beard.

“Willy’s a male,” Gary said, “about five years old. Recently, he’s started acting different, more wary. Neurotic. See those canines?”

How could I miss them. All four were sharp and jutted beyond his other teeth.

“This species attacks from above.” Gary waved a hand toward a sturdy branch on the sawed-off tree wedged into the exhibit. “If he’s sittin’ up there, he might drop down on you with his mouth open, lay those eyeteeth into your neck or skull.”

“Really?” I pulled my hand off the cool drainage lip and shoved it into my pocket. Willy weighed around twenty pounds. He had a pot belly but looked strong. “Has he done that?”

“No. No. One in captivity somewhere else nailed a keeper. But as males get older, they’re more likely to turn. Do some damage.” Gary paused, then focused on Willy. “Hey, buddy,” he said, voice low. “It’s okay. We’ll be done here soon.” Gary tilted his head toward me. “She’s okay.”

While Gary unrolled the hose, Willy scampered up the trunk, legs and long arms assisted by a thick tail used like a third hand. He moved with the ease of an athlete.

“Now, when you’re hosin’ out, you sometimes gotta open this gate,” Gary said, gesturing toward a two-by-three-foot barred door at the lower right side of the cage. “Until he knows you, though, don’t do it.”

“How long will that take?”

“Oh, maybe a month since you’re swing, but you’ll know. Stand back over there and I’ll show you how it’s done.”

I stepped out of Willy’s view, but not beyond his influence. Shaken by the monkey’s glare, I pulled a notebook out of my back pocket and wrote Do not reach into Willy’s cage.

Gary lifted the key ring chained to his belt and unlocked the gate. The service area smelled like a dank men’s locker room with pungent overtones. He leaned a shoulder in, spoke to the monkey, then aimed the hose low to work solid pieces of food and excrement from the windowed edge back into the trough. Before we moved to the next exhibit, he said, “Stay clear, follow your routine, and you’ll be fine.”

That week, I was also trained for my other job in the zoo kitchen, a public exhibit with a wide-angle video camera connected to a TV monitor in the visitors’ hall. An elderly woman with forearms that wobbled showed me how to chop apples, oranges, and vegetables, slice bananas, grapes, and mangoes, and distribute them in different combinations into three dozen bowls for various species, from toucans to tortoises.

She wasn’t a talker. I kept checking the clock, wondering if it was broken. After more pounding silence, she said in a monotone, without looking up, “This is for the birds.” Because we were being filmed and possibly watched, I interpreted her low voice and downcast gaze as a confession that she, too, was bored by the tedious work.

I stopped mid-slice to look at her, expecting a prisoner’s let-me-out-of-here gaze. I waited, but she kept on with her methodical handiwork, the needs of each species committed to memory.

I was wrong. Her isolated statement referred to a beige bowl of fruit for a flock of budgies.

The zoo chef also taught me the recipe for the flamingos’ brunch: measure several scoops of dry dog food into three large rubber vats. Add water and soak until soggy. Drizzle with beta-carotene. The oily, crimson-red precursor to vitamin A kept their feathers rosy, a role performed in the wild by brine shrimp.

From a freezer down the hall, I retrieved ten-pound slabs of meat to thaw for the big cats. Next, I decanted human blood from a plastic bag, donated by a hospital after it had expired. I carried it down the hall in a shallow bowl to the vampire bat.

One day, the elephant keeper introduced me the zoo’s Asian elephant. Bunny pressed her massive forehead against the stout bars between us. She checked me out with knowing eyes ten times the size of mine. I raised my hand and rubbed tough, wrinkled skin between her eyes. Sparse hairs sprouting from it weren’t as stiff as I’d expected.

Bunny opened her mouth wide and stuck out her tongue.

“Go ahead,” the keeper said.

Even though he’d prepped me about what to do, I hesitated before responding to her invitation. Scratching a two-foot-long slippery pink tongue was unlike anything I’d experienced. From then on, whenever I had a chance, I’d stop by to visit Bunny and massage her tongue.

In the primate wing, along with Willy, I cared for two kinkajous, several doe-eyed, nocturnal bush babies, and other primates from South America. I found them all fascinating but was drawn in most by Willy. Now and then, while tending to other animals in my charge, I’d hear his loud shrieks and thrumming noises from his banging something on the wall, like a kid having a tantrum.

I tried to stay calm around Willy, not only in appearance but inside. Random images of a snarling attack thwarted my efforts. The summer before, when I walked dogs and cleaned kennels for a veterinarian, a German shepherd I was about to leash snapped at me. His upper and lower canines had caught my hand.

Sometimes, when Willy raged, I massaged my left palm with my right thumb, remembering the throbbing pain of the puncture wound. In the aftermath of that experience, I saw Willy as my challenge: I wanted him to trust me.


One day during lunch at a picnic table outdoors, I asked Gary why Willy was kept alone. Some of Mesker Zoo’s habitats were ahead of their time for the era. The capuchin monkeys lived in an outdoor colony on a one-third-scale replica of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria. Instead of a fence, it was surrounded by a water-filled moat. Our hometown zoo was the first place I ever saw monkeys, lions, or bears exhibited out in the open, surrounded by moats instead of behind bars or fences. As a child, during family visits, I’d watched twenty nimble capuchins scamper around the ship and up its rigging, groom each other, and sleep side by side. On the fake ship’s deck, young ones wrestled and played like I did with my siblings. They seemed unaware of us and other visitors, more like wild monkeys. Babies were born and raised in that colony.

“Why’s he alone?” Gary repeated. “Oh man, that’s a story.” He wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Weirdest thing. About two years ago, this elderly couple called the zoo. Said they had two monkeys who weren’t doing well.”

“Were they from another zoo?”

He shook his head. “They had them as pets.”

“No way.”

“They did.”

“That can’t be legal.”

“It is.”

“Where do the monkeys come from?”

“Local hunters, mainly after their meat, shoot them out of the trees.”

Gary told me that woolly infants nurse for about two years. At first, they cling to their mom’s belly fur and later, they straddle her back. Because lactating females in a group are slower, they’re easier targets. “When a mother is shot and falls to the ground,” he said, “they pry the baby from her—if it’s still alive. Pet trade pays a lot for a young monkey. They’re a bonus to bushmeat hunters. It’s a nasty scene.” He stared at his knees. “Ten mothers are killed for every infant sold to a dealer.”

I exhaled in disbelief.

He raised his eyebrows. “Anyway, this couple brought ’em in, dressed like a human girl and boy, both in diapers. Supposedly brother and sister. Likely not, though, since woollies rarely have twins.” Gary rubbed the back of his neck. “Both were seriously dehydrated. Their fur was coarse and thin. Vet here got ’em on an IV barely in time.”

He leaned forward, folded arms on the table. “The couple had tried to give them a good life. They said the male especially—that’s Willy—had gotten too hard to manage. They turned ’em over to us.”

“Where’s the female?”

Gary shoved his sandwich wrapper aside. “She died about six months ago.”

“Oh jeez.”

“Some gastrointestinal problem. Woollies don’t do well in captivity.”

After that, I began taking lunch breaks in the primate area. I’d say hello to Willy from the wings, then walk around and sit in the concrete alley behind his exhibit—on the floor—so no visitors could see me. I’d bring a book or a magazine.

I’d read that woolly monkeys in South America lived as long as twenty-five years and the species was threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Large troops spent most of their time high in dense jungle canopies, often a hundred feet up. Close-knit family groups of ten to forty animals included multiple males and females and their offspring, and adult males had been observed caring for newborns—not necessarily their own.

While I ate my lunch or read, Willy observed from a favorite branch, his furry, expressive brow moving up and down like he was studying me. After a while, instead of staying in the tree, he’d sit near the bars and eat with both hands, in that unselfconscious way, mango juice dripping down his chin. Now and then, he’d glance at me with shiny eyes.

Mornings when I arrived as keeper for the area, I’d call out a hello to all my charges, but it was Willy’s high-pitched response that I listened for, “Ee-olk, ee-yooolk.” Still, he kept his distance. When I cleaned, he stayed hunched near the ceiling, squinting at me. Then one day, before I slid him a fresh tray of food, I balanced a slice of banana—a favorite—on the horizontal rail between us. He eyed me sideways before snatching it. Days later, when I held a piece of fruit for him, he took it, then sat down and ate beside me instead of rushing to the far side of the enclosure.

One day, during my health-status rounds, I stopped to check on Willy. He was seated next to the drainage trough. I rested my hand on the flat strut that connected the vertical bars. He looked at it, then touched it with long fingers tipped with thick black nails. Head bent over, he gently inspected the skin on the back of my hand and wrist as my mother might.

That’s when I knew I could open the door to hose out his exhibit.

Toward the end of the summer, while I was cleaning Willy’s cage, I leaned all the way in with the nozzle, one knee up on the drainage trough, aiming the water jet in arcs to coax out some melon rinds and a chunk of monkey poop stuck in a corner. He watched from the high branch. I mostly worked in silence but every now and then, I’d glance at him and tell him something about my weekend, like, “Yesterday, I went on a long bike ride with some friends. We stopped for a picnic. You would have liked it.”

I remembered Gary’s warning, but I couldn’t imagine Willy leaping on me.

I finished hosing but lingered, straddling the ledge. On impulse, I pulled my other leg up, crawled forward, and crouched inside the exhibit. I knew entering Willy’s cage was not sanctioned zookeeper behavior. Still, having learned his history, witnessed changes in his demeanor, and read about his species, some part of me couldn’t bear the idea of him spending so much time alone. With knees bent and my back and neck pressed against the wall, I talked to him as he stared down from his perch. “How’s it going, little guy?” After a couple of minutes, I left to finish my routine. Light-headed with joy, I wanted to tell someone about the experience but of course didn’t, not even my mom.

The third time I joined Willy in his cage, he was again on a high branch while I crouched in the same spot, back flush against the wall, cage door closed but unlatched. About when I decided it was time to leave, he reached an arm out, grasped a branch, then sauntered down the trunk. He stepped onto wet concrete and with tail curled high, arms straight out for balance, he toddled over to me.

My heart rate ticked up a notch. What’s he doing? I thought.

When he put his hand on my knee, time stopped. He climbed onto my lap and slid his arms around my torso. With legs around my waist, he pulled in close. His actions felt familiar, like holding one of the children I babysat for, except his muscular tail draped against my calf.

Astounded, I embraced him. His smell was distinct yet familiar, musky and male.

“Hey, Willy,” I said, voice soft. “You’re a good boy.” I kept one arm around him and petted him with my other hand.

I brushed away the thought of canines sinking into flesh. What I wrestled with was how I would explain myself if I was caught holding a monkey like that.

I ran my hand again down the back of his furry head and along his spine.

Cheek against my chest, Willy tightened his grip around me. His body began to quiver.

I froze. Uncertain, but not scared.

He inhaled hard, then his breathing turned to hitching exhalations that sounded and felt like sobbing. As his body quaked, I stroked his head and back to comfort him. Eyes shut tight, I could not hold back my tears.

After a few moments, he grew quiet. We held each other until I realized I had to leave or risk being seen by a morning visitor—or the zoo director. I carefully extracted myself from our embrace.

On my last day at the zoo, I finished my work, clocked out, and went to Willy’s exhibit. I found him sitting by the bars, arms resting on his knees. I thanked him for being patient with me and thought back to my first weeks there and how I’d been afraid of him. At the time, haunted by my mishap with the German shepherd, Willy and I had often exchanged skeptic’s glances. The incident the summer before had shaken my belief that I had a special knack with dogs and other mammals. Getting the job at the zoo was a chance to rectify my mistake—and move beyond it.

If I’d had weeks with that shepherd, I might have prevented that split second when his fear, that pulse of defensive fight or flight adrenalin, left him with no choice but to let me know I had violated his space.

The instant the dog’s canines pierced my hand, I’d felt betrayed. Over the summer, in my work at the zoo, I’d come to understand I had that wrong. By not taking time to gain his trust, I’d betrayed him.

With Willy, the stakes had been higher, but I’d had two months to study him, overcome my fear, and earn his trust.

I reached between two bars to rub Willy’s shoulder while I told him I was leaving to go to college and that I would come back. I told him how sorry I was he’d ended up in a zoo. As much as I wanted to, I did not enter his cage to say goodbye.


Away at school in Wisconsin, life was rich with new experiences, learning at an accelerated pace, and making new friends. But at night, alone in my small dorm room, I missed my family and my boyfriend.

I ached for Willy in a different way. It hurt to think of him alone in that cage. Did he remember being an infant in the wild, arms and legs looped around his mother’s warm torso, his belly full, hands clutching her fur as she ambled branch to branch? Did he have any memory of the sharp Crack! Crack! that had ripped the sky apart? A fragmented awareness of the moment his mother’s muscled body went limp and, together, they dropped, shredding leaves, snapping twigs? Did he have twitching nightmares triggered by that instant when she hit the ground, his body cushioned and saved by hers?

At the college library, I found a book on primates and read about a display, unique to Willy’s species, in which two monkeys huddle together, puffing up their cheeks and huffing the air in and out. Snuffling, as scientists called it, was considered a gesture of appeasement, greeting, or friendship.

I leaned back hard against the chair.

Someone else in the world understood what I’d experienced.

Surrounded by shelves of books on animal behavior, I still didn’t realize the pivotal role Willy would play in my future. But concern for him catalyzed my curiosity about primates, which eventually tugged me away from a degree in mathematics to ultimately pursue a career in marine mammal research and conservation.

During my winter break the following January, I drove to the zoo, keen to visit Willy and check in with Bunny. Hearing the macaws’ familiar chortles and screeches made me smile. I walked past the vacated monkey ship, surrounded by its frozen moat, past the lions’ expansive den, cut through a garden path, and tracked down Gary, making rounds. Patches of crusty snow pocked the landscape. The sidewalk glistened.

“Hey, Beth. How’s college treatin’ ya?”

“Good. I like it, but it’s hard. I miss working here.”

I hurried through the small talk and then asked if I could visit Willy.

Gary set his bucket of tools down. “I’m sorry. He-uh. He died a couple of months ago.”

His words landed like a suffocating cloak. I shook in disbelief. “Willy?”

Gary clenched his lips, nodding.

Back in my parents’ parked car, I wrapped my arms around my waist and rocked forward and back. I wept for Willy. I wept for myself; for getting close and leaving. I wept for the life he didn’t have beneath sun-dappled treetops in earshot of siblings, uncles and cousins, sons and daughters, traveling miles from one patch of new leaves or ripe fruit to the next without ever touching the forest floor.

Meet the Contributor

Beth Ann Mathews is a marine biologist from the Midwest who earned her master’s at the University of California Santa Cruz. As a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, she taught behavioral ecology and marine mammal biology and led field research on harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and harbor porpoises. Beth’s book, Deep Waters: A Memoir of Loss, Alaska Adventure, and Love Rekindled (She Writes Press 2023), is an intimate story of relationship resilience in the face of a family crisis, set against the backdrop of Alaska’s magnificent, yet unforgiving, marine wilderness. Contact Beth at info@bethannmathews.com or www.elizabethannmathews.com.

Story Image Source: Brent Moore / Flickr Creative Commons

  18 comments for “Willy: One in Ten by Beth Ann Mathews

  1. Wow, thank you for sharing this. I loved the part about the “this is for the birds” then realizing it was meant literally. And of course the central part of the story about Willy was amazing and moving. How he actually came down and put his arms around you. We aren’t so separate as some like to think. I’m glad that happened. Also, through this retelling, I was able to feel the sadness that he died alone without his community. Thank you again for sharing.

    • Thank you, Erik. I’m glad you caught the humor in the interaction with woman who prepared all the food for the zoo. Telling Willy’s story was a powerful experience, especially with the perspective I have now.

  2. What a beautiful and beautifully written story about a rare connection. I can’t stop thinking about it!

  3. Thank you, Beth, for a masterful and emotion-packed story. I love the many details you provide about your daily routines as a young zookeeper, the behavior of the animals, and especially about Willy’s evolving interactions with you. You befriended him and he came to trust you. Beautiful story. A gift to us all.

  4. A very tender story, Beth! I had no idea of your experiences working at Mesker Park Zoo with Willy. Your ability to share such an impactful experience is impressive. Good job!

  5. Beth, I loved your story about Willy and the connection you made with him. I have shared the story with my family so they can enjoy it too.

  6. So sad, but Willy decided to embrace you and your love and concern for him. Must have felt like you were a mother figure to him. At least you both felt a goodness in each other. Sad, but at least you two had your moments together. Love it. Great story.

  7. Oh, dear Beth. Thank you for sharing your story of, and tender relationship with Willy. Your exquisite writing brought me so close I felt as if I was experiencing all of this wonder along with you.
    With gratitude and love.💕

  8. What a sad but beautiful story about the strikingly ‘human’ connection primates can have with one another

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