Buster – a loving, smart capuchin monkey – is an important member of the Smith family.
Seventeen-year-old Jonathan Smith admits that 7-year-old Buster can be a pain sometimes. “It’s like having any other sibling,” Smith says. “He can be annoying, but you love him anyway.”
There is one difference in this rivalry among brothers: Buster is a black-capped tufted capuchin monkey.
Capuchins are a New World primate from South America. They are social animals with the intellectual capabilities to use tools, process information, remember things and create value systems. They can also process emotion.
“One of the greatest joys of having him is that he’s very loving,” says Donald Smith, Buster’s adoptive human dad. “It’s also exciting teaching him to do things.” Buster can wash his hands (he dislikes having anything messy on his hands), open water bottles and sealed bags, scribble on paper, flip pages in a magazine and open doors, just to name a few. And he can solve a metal wire brain teaser puzzle well before anybody else in the house.
There’s one thing the Smith family wants to make very clear: Capuchins are not pets. Adopting a capuchin is a lifestyle change. “You can’t treat them like a dog or a cat,” LuCinda Smith, Buster’s adoptive human mom says. “Buster requires a lot more one-on-one care.”
Essentially, he is like a child, a part of the regular dynamic of their household. “Once you make the decision to adopt one, there is no turning back,” the Smiths caution. So, if owning a monkey is something you want to do, you need to do your research — and a lot of it. That’s what the Smith’s did.
LuCinda has been an animal lover since childhood. She was particularly fascinated with monkeys and made a promise to herself that one day she would have one. As their children grew older, she and her husband felt ready to look for a monkey. They researched the different types of primates that are available for adoption in the United States and came across the capuchin. After a year of researching the species, they understood the type of commitment that was required. In captivity, capuchins have a 40-year life span. In the wild, the lifespan is 25 to 40 years. They applied for adoption and were put on a waiting list for several months before they had their monkey.
Seven years ago, they brought a nameless, two-week-old capuchin into their home and into their hearts. “We didn’t want to pick any names that we had a human friend named. We didn’t want anyone to have hurt feelings for naming our monkey after them,” LuCinda says with a laugh. They settled on Buster.
At just 5 pounds, Buster is now fully grown. His features are very human-like, from his circular pupils to his facial expressions. “He absolutely believes that you understand what he’s saying,” Donald says. He requires the attention of a newborn. He wears a diaper and will for the remainder of his life, so he has to be changed. He can get a cold or a stuffy nose just like a baby and requires infant medicine. Because of his petite size, the Smiths have to manage the doses so as not to give him too much.
For the first year of his life, Buster drank a low-iron baby formula, until he could eat solids. Now he mostly eats a paleo diet — no carbs, no sugar. “Of course, he has had a potato chip, and he does know what spaghetti noodles taste like,” LuCinda says. They restrict refined sugars, which can lead to diabetes and is one of the main causes of death in capuchins who are owned privately.
Just like a toddler, Buster has to have childhood immunizations: measles, mumps, rubella, all of the typical shots. He also has to have a rabies vaccination as a safety precaution. He has regular vet appointments. His veterinarian is a primate professor at North Carolina State University who sees only exotic animals. He also has a local vet in case of an emergency; he can consult with Buster’s vet in Raleigh until the Smiths can get him there.
The Smiths have five children and one granddaughter. Jonathan, the youngest, will leave for college next year. Donald and LuCinda realize that with Buster’s expected lifespan, they’ll never be empty-nesters. “We have to plan our lives around Buster,” LuCinda says. “And he’ll be in our will when we pass away, because he’ll need to be taken care of.” Donald works primarily from home so he can stay with Buster during the day.
At the center of most every decision they make as a family is Buster. He dictates where they can live (some state, town and city ordinances do not permit exotic pets), where they can travel and even where they vacation. “We have a motor home nicknamed the Buster Mobile that we take on vacations so Buster can go with us,” Donald says. “We recently went to Carowinds with the whole family, and LuCinda and I took turns sitting with Buster and taking the kids through the park.” Buster has USDA certifications, and the Smiths have to take his papers with then whenever they travel.
Buster is very well behaved for “a perpetual two-year-old.” Male black-capped tufted capuchins can be more challenging. But Buster is a bit of an anomaly. He is more social and more laid back than most. But Buster is every bit the little brother. He pouts if he doesn’t get his way; he won’t make eye contact with you if he’s mad; he pretends that he’s hurt if he isn’t getting enough attention; and he’ll let you know if you are blocking his view of cartoons on the television. And yes, he picks his nose. But he will also hug you, cuddle with you on the sofa and talk to you. “If you sit with him and interact for an hour, you’ll think the two of you are carrying on a real conversation,” Donald says.
Physically, Buster may in fact resemble a newborn, but intellectually, he’s far advanced. He knows how to share things with people. But he also knows how to place a value on something. If he perceives one item is better than another, he’ll keep the better one for himself and share the lesser item.
“He also loves to turn things into tools,” Donald says. “He’s constantly trying to manipulate things and take them apart.” (Writer’s note: As I interviewed the Smith family for this article, Buster came over to me more than once, hugged me then took my pen away and tried to take it apart. He eventually succeeded).
The Smiths try to limit Buster’s time in public. “We don’t parade him around town. We’ll walk him around the neighborhood every once in a while. We’re very protective,” LuCinda says. To the Smiths, Buster isn’t a novelty item or a trend they’ll tire of. And to reiterate, he is not a pet. He is a major part of their family unit, and they are more than okay with the prospect of 40 years of diaper changing.