Joyce Whitis

Many years have gone by since the spider monkey that I named Elvis, left the building. My Elvis was raised from babyhood, diapered and bottle fed, bathed and rocked to sleep, loved and cared for by me. I tried to replaced his natural mother that was probably shot from a tree as the baby clung to her back. In that way the person hoping to make a profit from selling the baby, could just pick up the orphan and take him away. As long as I had Elvis, the noise of a gunshot would send him scurrying for the protection of my arms, causing tears to come to my eyes as I held him close.

The beginning is always a good way to start and when I first saw the tiny baby monkey that would become my Elvis, Tom and I had gone to a bird auction in central Texas. I had my pet shop, Joyce’s Animal Farm on Graham Street at the time and we drove the van down with the intention of picking up some exotic birds to bring back for customers. But sometime between looking at parrots in cages and the beginning of the auction, I saw this baby monkey wearing a tiny diaper, the remains of a bad case of lice still clinging to his hair. He was being carried around the grounds by a small man who spoke little English but stopped folks periodically and asked if they would like to buy the monkey. The monkey stared back at his would-be owners with frightened eyes and as I watched him, I knew that whatever it took, I would have to have those frightened eyes looking at me in contentment. I tapped the little man on the shoulder.

A few hours later, Tom and I were headed back to Stephenville with several cages of birds and a baby monkey asleep on my shoulder. When we got home, the monkey would not let go of my neck. He made small noises, stared into my face and clung tightly to my left arm. Finally at bedtime I told Tom that it looked like we were going to have to sleep with the monkey. He said, “OK. Just be sure to keep him on your side of the bed!”

Tom didn’t need to worry. Elvis clung to my arm and shoulder all night and I slept very little. The next day, I brought a pen from the shop to the house and it became Elvis’ sleeping quarters until we built an apartment for him in the old dairy barn.

Thus began 10 years of fun, frustration, pride, exhaustion, love, and patience. In fact, life with Elvis often resembled a sideshow in a wild animal circus. There was the time I took six grandkids and Elvis on a trip during spring break. I drove Tommy’s truck with a camper on the long bed. Kids and monkey made a game out of traveling back and forth in the crawl-through window from cab to camper. We ate picnic lunches in roadside parks and Elvis climbed the trees, sandwich in hand. We stopped in Windthorst at historic St. Mary’s church to visit the grotto built in honor of local WWII soldiers. Before pulling away, I left a diaper in the rest room trash. I laughed thinking that the person picking up the trash would wonder about a small diaper with a hole cut in it. They couldn’t know that it was to provide for a monkey’s tail and not for a devil’s.

We built a special hang out for Elvis at the pet shop and stocked it with swings and other toys. He had lots of visitors for whom he loved doing tricks and if someone wearing glasses got within arm reach of his private living quarters, he’d reach out and remove the glasses from the wearer’s face.

He went home with Tom and me every afternoon when we closed the shop and during the first year lived part-time in a large cage in the living room. At night I’d take him out and rock him, fed him something special, talk to him and then put him to bed. He responded to everything I did including learning to give me a big hug when I asked if he loved me.

In the yard at home, his special friend and playmate was our Doberman named Jesse Jackson. I had calendars made for Christmas with a picture of Elvis sitting on Jesse’s back, his head on the dog’s. He looked to be in deep thought.

Elvis liked to ride around with me in the van. His favorite activity was to sit on the dash, watching the traffic through the windshield, picking out Cheetos from a bag and showing me his teeth in a wide smile of pure pleasure as he crammed them in his mouth. The day he wrapped his tail around the rear view mirror and leaped toward the back of the van was the beginning of a dozen times that same mirror had to be re-glued to the windshield.

One afternoon Elvis and I were traveling around the South Loop when I spotted a police car following me. When he turned on his flashing lights, I mumbled to Elvis that guessed I must have been speeding and got ready to plead with the officer. When he got to my driver’s side window he said, “I’m sorry to have pulled you over but I saw that monkey jumping around and I’ve never seen a monkey up close. Can I see your monkey?”

Very much relieved that I wasn’t going to get a ticket, I got Elvis to shake the officer’s hand and give the identification pinned to his shirt, a close look.

The officer wasn’t the only person who wanted to give Elvis close inspection and Elvis and I became part of the school curriculum around Erath and adjoining counties. We were also enlisted to give regular appearances at the Stephenville Public Library during the story hour.

I had bumper stickers printed that read, “I saw Elvis at Joyce’s Animal Farm” and they became very popular. I had reports that they appeared in several states including at least one in other country. Customers came to the shop one day and told me they saw the stickers in South Africa.

When my pet monkey was about two, I took him to see one of the veterinarians with the Fort Worth Zoo whose patients were the primates. He told me of the importance of a vitamin and mineral rich diet for my little guy so that his bones would develop properly. If he got the right nutrition, one day Elvis would stand up and walk on his back legs. He also told me that at about age 7 to expect a change of personality and that it would improve his temperament if I had him neutered. I followed carefully his words about diet but decided to just leave Elvis with all his parts, a decision that I would really regret much later.

Next Sunday, Elvis leaves the building.