In Memory of our precious
I would like to relate a story to you about Willow. She was a most special creature of God’s world. Willow not only graced everyone’s presence during her short time with us, she continues to be an inspiration for those who knew her personally, as well as those of you who have come to know her after her untimely death.
The story I am about to relate to you is a true event. Willow Wisp came to our home at the age of 4 months old, on December 28 1994, her mother (a spider monkey) had died due to childbirth complications at a zoo. The nursery attendant was relocating, making it necessary for Willow to find a new placement. Hence, I became her new surrogate mother. I spent several years researching the possibility of becoming a private primate caretaker, reading books, calling people, exhausting every and any avenue I could find to educate myself to the best of my ability. Saying a small prayer, I told the woman “Yes”, I am ready for this!
Willow arrived in Portland, Maine on Delta Dash Airlines. I eagerly watched for the attendant to bring out the small carrier containing my new charge. Finally the moment arrived, here came a woman carrying a dog carrier. Ever so gently, I peered inside, almost afraid to breath, I was so excited.
There she was, this tiny dark shadow clinging to her “stuffie” gorilla. I unlocked the door of her transport cage and tenderly removed the two. OH, how beautiful she was. Tiny dark brown eyes peered back at me framed by a light circle of beige then, dark again, hair. Her tiny body was a depth of brown to this day I can’t describe. All I can relate is that her shining aura permeated every part of me. She tightly clung to her stuffie, gazing up at me with expectant eyes, as if to ask, “Who are you? “
I held her near me, and offered her the bottle of formula I had prepared for her. She eagerly accepted the offer of nourishment and hungrily drank it down, all the while hanging on to her security. When she had finished, I called the woman who had been instrumental in pairing us up to let her know Willow was in my arms, safe and sound.
We proceeded out to my vehicle to make the hour-long trip home. I brought my son’s girlfriend, Harmony, with me to hold Willow on our way home. We packed Willow’s care package of goodies (diaper bag, monkey chow, toys, diapers, wipes etc.) in the back seat and proceeded on our way. I had all I could do to keep my eyes on the road and off of Willow. It all seemed like a dream. A real, honest to goodness baby monkey, here, right here in my vehicle. The trip home seemed to drag on for ages, but we finally arrived.
We trekked into the house and began to get Willow settled in. I had been told to not to expect her to let go of the surrogate mother, stuffie, for anything! That was her security, her lifeline, the only “mother” she knew, and she was NOT about to do anything to loose it. Everywhere Willow went, the stuffie was there too. Not a second went by that she did not grasp that stuffie with every fiber in her body, for to do so could have meant death had she been still with her biological mom. The law of instinct holds fast for survival.
I expected nothing of her and only offered myself to her, at her discretion. Several days passed and Willow began to put her trust in me, little by little. I was the source of her nourishment, the stuffie still her security. She gradually began to explore the possibility of letting go, one hand only, of her stuffie and touching me ever so gently and cautiously. (She was with me 24 hours a day since her arrival, carried constantly on me with her stuffie)
Finding the touch pleasurable, I
assume, she became slowly braver as time went on. By day five, Willow
had decided I was an acceptable substitute to her mama stuffie - She
left it by the wayside and I began a new saga as official
Was I up to this? Had I studied enough? Had I talked to enough of the “right” people? Everything felt “right” and I decided to let gut instinct take over and pray for the best.
We went everywhere together. I might add here, I had pursued my permit diligently, as Maine does not allow monkeys as “pets” under any circumstances!! The only permissible primate permits were for use in a therapeutic setting. I was in luck! I had directed (among many other things) a therapeutic riding program, using my Paso Fino horses, for 5 years previously. This was my way in to satisfy the state I was capable of using the monkey in a therapeutic setting. I had also been a wildlife rehabilitator for 17 + years, so the powers that be knew who they were dealing with.
In preparing Willow for her life’s profession, I introduced her to numerous varied situations to expand her horizons. Needless to say, she never left contact with some part of my body as she was socialized. It took some time, but she gradually accepted other people as potential friends. She grew to trust people more each day and before I knew it, she would venture out away from me to cling to another new member of her ever-expanding troop., inquiring how they had been and relating to them how she was. She began to accept each person unconditionally. A lesson she shared with many a teen at the local teen center she and I volunteered at. Church members, especially the elderly, were entranced by her.
People in the street would stop to
inquire about her. Everyone we met was told
I felt that by allowing each and
every person we met the opportunity to visit us, I could help prevent
unnecessary heartache and despair on behalf of a few primates. It takes
a certain type of person to be capable of understanding and
Willow accompanied me to schools, from pre-k to college (anthropology classes) to give educational presentations. It always amazed and pleased me to find the questions asked by all ages to be universal. What do they eat?, where do they sleep?, why is the tail like that? and on the list goes. We were invited for return visits everywhere we went. Willow was invited to private and family functions at our local group home. Folks would request her presence for supper with them. Outings such as a ride on the “Songo River Queen” , a paddle boat reproduction, were pleasant events. Of course, the rest of us as Willow’s family were invited to attend as well! A wonderful time was always had by all.
Willow’s family of admirers grew daily. Everyone who had the pleasure of meeting her, fell in love with her. I know I sure did. She was a joy to behold and such a wondrous gift from God. During her short time with all of us, she touched so many hearts and souls. Willow attended church regularly with us. I am a Sunday School teacher at our local Methodist church. Willow would engage in activities with the children as if she was one of them. The elderly members of the congregation would look forward to visiting with Willow each Sunday after services, and she enjoyed them as well. The look of delight on their faces as she interacted with them was beyond any words I could write.
Willow also actively participated
in “staffing” at our local teen center with me. The teens adored her. My
favorite memories are those of our male “jock” and “gangsta-punk wanna
be” teens, who normally were so bold and gruff, reorganize their entire
personality when they engaged in conversations
I remember times the kids would hold a dance and , as usual, there would be some minor disagreement that inevitably would turn into a physical dual between two or more of the teens. Willow, riding high upon my shoulder, would accompany me into the melee. As I stood in between the dissenters, their fists raised more often than not, I would calmly and firmly state, “Better stop this now before Willow gets hurt and I am unable to control myself and hurt both or all of you!”
It worked like a charm, every time. Most times, when tempers finally got under control, I would be approached and hear a sincere apology form the teens involved in the fight. They not only respected me but, truly loved Willow. This is especially poignant because these kids did not have many people or creatures in their lives that they allowed or trusted themselves to feel that way about! Many a time I would hear a curse word spilling from their lips and it got to the point, after frequent reprisals of, “HEY, I don’t want Willow to learn those nasty words”, that as the words began to pour out they would stop themselves and apologize. God forbid, ANYTHING, not be done right for our Willow.
My heart still aches sometimes for the days of her gracing our presence when I think of times like these. The list goes on and on, of the miracles Willow was a part of. She was truly a great diplomat and missionary! Willow lived with us just a short 4 months before God called her home.
She had been fine on Sunday, the 29th of April 1995. I woke to a lethargic acting baby. I called my veterinarian and he said to bring her on in to the hospital. By the time we arrived, poor Willow’s pulse was so weak, we could not even get an iv needle into her jugular vein. My vet injected some fluids under her skin and looked at me hopelessly, saying, “I’m sorry Karen, I don’t know what else to tell you. Take her home, keep her warm and call me if she gets worse.”
To this day, as I write down these words, I feel the horrible pain of inadequacy, not knowing what was wrong or how to help her. The tears flow freely down my cheeks, and I am not a person who easily cries. As I held her close to me, next to my skin, under my shirt, I prayed to God for help.
As I drove home, a short 10 minutes away, Willow died in my arms. To this day, I remember an ambulance passing by us and me thinking to myself, “God, if the person in that vehicle needs to live as Willow dies, so be it!” I will accept whatever plans you have for me and mine. As I thought these thoughts I felt Willow’s spirit leaving her body.
I pulled into my driveway... barely able to see through the tears. I slowly walked into my home, now feeling so very empty. I carried Willow’s lifeless body, rocking it as I walked, for hours before I could finally set her gently down. I found a piece of black angora I had knit, left over from a sweater I had made for my mom, and wrapped it lovingly around her. Then I called a close friend at her work to relay the pain I was feeling. I called the vet’s to let them know Willow had died and that I wanted to arrange for an autopsy. They told me to come back in as soon as I felt comfortable driving.
As I paced the floor, still holding Willow close to me, I vaguely envisioned a documentary I had seen of a mother macaque or gorilla (or both) caring their dead baby for days. At that moment, I truly knew exactly how those mothers felt. I never wanted to put Willow down, not even for a moment.
Hours passed and I finally resigned myself to the fact, she was gone from me. I was able to gather my thoughts together enough to feel competent enough to drive back to the veterinarian’s.
As I walked back through the doors I had just hours before, gone through with a breathing Willow, fresh tears erupted. I honestly didn’t think I possibly could have any left, but they continued to flow. They asked if I wanted to wait outside while the autopsy was done, but I declined. I had to be there, overseeing the entire operation. Inch by inch, the vet checked Willow’s lifeless body over. The first incision was tough...but I had to continue my vigilance. We could see no gross abnormalities, but my vet was not a primate expert by any means. He is a wonderful veterinarian, compassionate and caring and always did his utmost for each animal he saw. Tissue samples from various organs were taken to be sent to a lab for diagnosis. Only time would tell, perhaps, what had occurred. When the autopsy was finished, my vet adeptly sewed Willow back up and handed her gently back to me with tears in his eyes. I thank him and headed back home again. My next rush of anguish would come when my boys arrived home from school and I would have to tell them Willow was dead.
We had a funeral, burying her in the area marked out for our own family cemetery on the property. We encircled her grave with rocks and I proceeded to order a gravestone for her, promised to be done within a month.
Even in her death Willow continued to touch people. The original small stone I had ordered, with her name engraved on it, was to have cost me only $50. A short time passed and I received a phone call, the stone was ready but, there had been a slight change. They had carved a stone twice the size I had ordered, the original being all I felt I could and should afford. The woman then proceeded to assure me, there would be no extra cost to me. I had told her some of Willow’s life and feel certain the “mistake” was “on purpose”. I picked up the completed stone several days later and was filled with appreciation as I saw what a beautiful work of art it was.
We had a small memorial service when we placed the stone and planted a few rose bushes beside Willow’s grave. And life went on, but so did Willow’s overwhelming affect on everyone who had known her. A memorial for her was said at church the following Sunday. One kind woman came to me after church was over and said how she envisioned Willow up in Heaven, hanging off Jesus’ arm as she often would ride on mine, with Jesus looking down, shaking his head, and thinking, “Karen, now, now I will care for her til you meet again!” Cards and sympathetic words came in droves.
As a tribute to the love she created, I planned an event for all the teens at the center she had touched. I made calls and prayed. The date was set for Good Friday of Easter weekend. Normally, 30 - 50 teens attended the center the evenings it was open, I prayed for them all to show up. Nothing was said to any of them about the occasion until that evening. As the evening progressed, 60 - 70 teens showed up. We spread the word that we had an event planned for them in the gym next door after their first “outside break”. You could hear the excited buzz of voices, thinking an Easter egg hunt or similar event was to occur. Little did they know what I had planned for them!
We herded them into the gymnasium. Now, you need to realize that the age spread was 13 to 19, and all 60+ kids shuffled in. When they began to settle down enough for me to speak to them, I asked that they all move to one end of the gym and get comfy sitting on the floor. You could see and feel the anticipation emanating from each of them. I then asked for quiet, and reminded them I had a touch of laryngitis, so could they be real quiet so as to hear me. Eyes darted back and forth, what was up??
I began, “Guys, You all know how
much we loved Willow, and how much a part of our family she was, and how
I consider all of you part of my family too. I want to share some things
with you tonight. We lost Willow through no fault of her own. I am
aching with pain with the loss. I don’t want to have to loose any
I introduced the first speaker, “Guys, I’d like to introduce Mark, ....” and Mark said, “Hi, my name is Mark and I’m a recovering addict....” I’m sure you’ve heard the rest. My wonderment and gratitude continued. Some of the kids, at certain times, became squirmy and the others, especially some of my more “hard core trouble-makers”, would elbow the wigglers and tell them to behave!
About halfway through the presentation we took a break, and I again offered that anyone could leave if they wished. A handful of the younger teens, maybe 6 of them, decided to leave , the rest remained. The rest of the people who had graciously agreed to come, spoke of their stories. As we finished up the evening, I had teens coming up to me, many with tears in their eyes, thanking me, apologizing for the behavior of others, or apologizing for having to leave before the end.
Praise God for sharing sweet Willow with us and for allowing me to carry on the work she had started! I, to this day, meet people who speak of her, in tender caring words. She is no longer with us physically, but her spirit still moves in miraculous ways.
As an end note, The autopsy was
not conclusive, but we theorize Willow may have caught a fatal strain of
strep, which is usually very quick acting and very deadly if not fought
with extremely intensive therapy. I found out later that strep had been
going around and Willow had probably picked it up from someone, who may
not have even realized they were sick yet. A year later, I spoke with a
mom whose son had displayed the same type of symptoms and ended up in
God Bless Our Sweet Willow.
Willow the Wisp, a young spider monkey whose mother died at a zoo, came to live with the family of Karen Hawkins. When she first arrived, she was a frightened, clinging creature who clung to Karen and screamed at the touch of anyone else. She came to Sunday School, she came to church, she went everywhere with Karen, riding comfortably on her shoulder and hiding her head when frightened, I think I caught her napping when the sermon went on too long!
During the period of three months I saw great changes in Willow and in the people around her. Willow learned to trust, and children learned to slow down their approach to her, giving her the time to approach them. We all learned how to bridge that divide between creatures of the human kingdom and wild creatures of the animal kingdom. Willow was not, after all, a domesticated puppy or kitten that we could scoop up on a whim.
Once Willow was comfortable and felt safe, there was no stopping her delightful antics as she wrapped her fingers around ours, toyed with eyeglasses and necklaces and earrings, and diligently explored the top of people's heads. She captivated us because she became so trusting and so bold, even while she was not totally one of US. Willow went visiting, to the nursing home, to the schools, to the Cafe Dove Teen Center, to strangers in stores and parking lots.
She and Karen had a lot to teach us about the sacred responsibility that we all share, that of maintaining a clean, safe, and stable Earth so that all its creatures can continue to share its habitation. Perhaps that is why Willow touched us so deeply, and we feel her loss so profoundly. She was cute, she was charming, she was endearing. She was also a great teacher about trust, acceptance, and mutual respect between species, and she reminded us to take our whole earth, our environment very seriously.
Good-bye, Willow. We miss you. And this preacher was proud to have you in the congregation!
My Son, Clayton, at Willow's grave site.
Pictures of Willow
(click on picture to see larger image)
Back to Primate Contents