"I saw him for the very first time; fast asleep in a beam of early morning sunshine, and I knew my life would never be the same" That sounds so corny, doesn't it? It's actually not too far from the actual truth. Oh, who am I talking about? Only the one who has my entire heart. It's not that kind of sappy love story… just bear with me; I'll tell you everything.
The one that I'm talking about is KAI, the baby bonnet macaque that I hand-raised for precisely 50 days. And to say that it was an eventful 50 days would be an understatement. Let's begin from when I actually met him.
Kai was found abandoned in Lonavala. We suspect that, being an infant, he didn't have the strong grasp necessary to hold on to his mother, who must have been chased by villagers or stray dogs. He was brought to the RESQ Wildlife Treatment Transit Unit in Pune as a bald headed baby with sparse fur, his face and extremities red from bad thermoregulation and a million wrinkles on his forehead like only a newborn primate can have.
The day after his arrival, I was scrubbing cow dung off the floor of the large cattle shed when the gate was opened. Tuhin walked in with the infant monkey asleep on his forearm, soaking up the early morning rays of the sun. I told you I wasn't kidding about the first time I saw Kai. Needless to say, I squealed in utter delight at the sight of him. Tuhin nimbly held him out of reach and told me to wash and adequately dry my hands before I could touch him. I did as I was told and then carefully cradled the baby bonnet on my forearm like I saw Tuhin do.
Kai's features were so wondrous to see… he was like the perfect mixture of an old person and an infant with his tiny digits, bald head and wrinkled skin. I marveled at the opposable thumbs on his hind legs; a critical difference between species like his and humans like myself. His knuckles and ear tips had small scabs, which I learned later were a result of birth. Hands down, his most arresting feature were his button eyes. Wide and dark, they were uncomprehending and full of innocence. It's like he saw everything clearly and yet didn't comprehend anything he saw. His bulbous head was easily the size of the rest of his body and the only two postures that he could attain were lying flat on his back or on his tummy. His fingers loosely gripped whatever he was placed on. That was something that needed to be worked on; the strength of his grip. A single paw curled around my finger didn't even cover an entire fingernail; that's how little his paws were.
My job brings me across so many newly born animals. Each one melts my heart and reduces me to a pile of absolute mush. I'm incapable of anything besides cooing and squealing at a little puppy's boop-able nose or a kitten's wee toe beans. Being around Kai elicited all those reactions. What I absolutely adored about him were his diapers. Neha MacGyver-ed a set of diapers for him fashioned from baby mittens, with cut-outs for his legs and tail. The sight of a baby monkey in a wee little diaper patterned with teddy bears was almost too much for me to handle. A set of red nappies and a third set of peach coloured nappies (all hand sewn!) were soon added to Kai's little nappy closet. This nattily dressed baby boy was truly a sight to behold!
Feeding him for the first couple of days was a challenge. A basic mix of baby formula and multivitamin and multiminerals was prepared every 3-4 hours and fed to him with a syringe with a nipple attachment. He lacked strength and instinct. He would swirl the milk formula around in his mouth but not swallow. Each drop of formula had to be deposited on his tongue and he would have to be coaxed into swallowing it. He soon caught on if you made a gulping noise. Even though he would take an agonisingly long time to have his meal, it was impossible to not be besotted with his eyes gazing at anything and everything with that wide new born stare.
Kai didn't pass any stools for the first 24 hours that he was at RESQ. The afternoon of his second day though, he passed his first stools; black small pellets known as meconium. I remember being so ecstatic to have witnessed this; it meant that everything was functional normally from the inside. My excitement soon petterred off into a mix of boredom and panic. Now that the meconium had been passed, Kai was passing poop every two hours. It seemed like l had just turned around to dispose a baby wipe that I had just used to wipe him, and his diaper was loaded again. Neha came up with a hack to line the insides of his nappies with panty liners (with holes cut in them for his tail of course) to prevent the nappies from being soiled and thus get worn down during excessive scrubbing.
Since Kai needed to be fed every few hours, I would bring him home with me. The first night was incredibly stressful for me. I mulled over whether I should sleep with the fan on or off, in case it got too cold for him (even though summer temperatures barely dipped below 20°C at night). I ended up sleeping with alarms set for every two hours to check on him and the warmth of his hot water bottle that I had placed in his crate with him. He also needed nappy changes a couple of times in the night. Thus began my journey of wrecking my sleep cycle as I would struggle to wake up and then struggle to fall back asleep after checking up on him. I still remember the very first morning when I woke up, bleary eyed from a bad sleeping pattern, to see his wrinkled face rising above his towel sheets, both arms clasped tightly around his hot water bottle. My heart never felt more full.
Mornings would pass in a blur of getting Kai and myself up, clean and ready for the day. The second morning onwards, he was strong enough to swallow his formula without any prompting. His digits would still tend to get cold without supervision so he needed to be checked on regularly and placed on my or anyone else's forearm so that he would get some body warmth. Keeping him perched on the forearm and trying to go about the day's tasks was not really cumbersome and the movements of my hand enabled him to strengthen his grip too. One of Sushrut's favourite things to do was hang Kai upside down in his wildly growing beard. A couple of toys were produced for the purpose of improving his posture and giving him something to grip even when he was inside his crate.
Looking back, all the days seem to be blurred into one, but I'll go over some highlights of Kai's growth. After 15 days, he was allowed to walk in the garden every morning for an hour. This activity was always supervised of course, out of fear that he may be plucked up by opportunistic crows as a tasty morsel. He wibbled and wobbled but eventually learned to walk on all fours. After a few days, he learned to take support from nearby objects and try to sit or stand upright. The biggest obstacle in his path was his own head, still far too large to be balanced by the rest of his small body. In the initial days of outside time, he would often abandon his explorations to take spontaneous naps on the grass. In the meanwhile, an orphaned barking deer was also brought in to RESQ, quickly endearing herself to everyone and nicknamed Baby D. Chetan and I would sit like parents at a kiddie park, one hand holding our phone cameras to capture any progress on our babies' part and the second holding anything they would need like baby wipes or a feeding bottle. Baby D and Kai had a few run-ins with each other which confused both their infant minds equally.
Slowly but surely Kai grew. His weight was taken after 10 to 15 days and no one failed to exclaim what a big boy he was getting to be, even though he was barely longer than half my forearm. He grew stronger and faster on the ground. He began suckling milk from the syringe and nipple in earnest. He went from consuming 3 to 4 ml in every feed time to drinking almost 22 to 25 ml. That's when he was switched over to a baby bottle. The transition was a bit of a struggle but once he got the hang of it, he took to it with gusto. He tries so hard to drink from his bottle by gripping it in his own hands but he's still a little weak for that. At work, an indoor play area was created for Kai by walling in a corner with a couple of trunks and laying down some false grass on the floor. I emulated the same sort of space in a corner of my bedroom, creating a boxed-in space using my wardrobe, mattress and bean bag and laying down towels and a bath mat for some texture.
Once Kai crossed 30 days of age, I began to introduce solid food like fruits into his diet. That's also when his incisor teeth had completely erupted (I was documenting their eruption from the very first day I saw the nubs protruding through his gums). The first day I tried this was absolutely hilarious. I gave him a small sliver of watermelon. He cautiously bit it, gagged on it a little bit, accidentally transferred the piece of fruit into his cheek pouch, retrieved it, gagged on it again and then proceeded to spit it out at me. Motherhood truly is an adventure isn't it? I learned to get an adequate amount of sleep by taking a power nap sometime between 6 pm and 8 pm, as soon as I got home from work, so that I would be able to continue feeding and changing Kai on schedule through the night. He didn't require any feeding post midnight but his alarming rate of churning out poop (and quite acidic poop at that!) necessitated nappy changes to prevent diaper rash. He did develop a nasty case of diaper rash even with regular changes so Neha decreed to just let him be au naturel to give his inflammed posterior some air to dry out. I grew to adjusting to having monkey poop on my clothes and just keeping wipes handy around him. My washing machine was working on a daily basis and Comfort Fabric Conditioner became one of my essential supplies in this lockdown. But what matters most is that Kai's skin healed over in a matter of days and all was well once again.
Yesterday, after 50 days of raising Kai, I left him behind at RESQ for the very first time. He's begun independently climbing and exploring his surroundings, even though he needs a comforting presence to come back to. I can't even describe the warm glow that I get when I see Kai sprinting towards me with his tail in an 'S' shape in the air. I'm very easily replaceable as he has the same reactions for his stuffed toys, but you get the idea. He eats fruits willingly now, if a little comically. He holds the fruit plate and proceeds to smash his forehead in the fruit, trying to catch one piece with his teeth. I'm sure he'll refine his dining etiquette soon. He idly scratches his body like you've seen any monkey do, so I'm sure there's some natural instinct there.
What's the plan with Kai going ahead? Well, we need to get him socialized with a troop of his species, ideally around the same age group as him. Once that's done, they can be released together in the wild and their strength will lie in their numbers and their unity. On that day I'm sure you'll find me curled inside my blankets with plenty of chocolates and a box of tissues, or whatever else that gets me through the empty nest syndrome. For now, Kai is still my responsibility from 9 am to 6 pm so there's that.
Here's my takeaway after this crash course in being a mother. I'm allowed to say this, because short of birthing Kai, I've been through every aspect of motherhood in the last 50 days. All I can say is this:
Motherhood is hard. It requires sacrifice, largely of sleep. It's gross and dirty. It's definitely tough but one look at those little baby eyes makes you want to power through. There's a weird melancholy in seeing a small creature grow and become more capable, eliminating your involvement in their life, but there's a sense of pride in it as well because you've tried so hard to make them capable. Oh and also, I slept through the night yesterday. That definitely contributes in taking the sadness away from the separation.