Two Critically Endangered Tamarins Freeze To Death Due To Zookeeper Error

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Lisa Winter

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577 Two Critically Endangered Tamarins Freeze To Death Due To Zookeeper Error

Two critically endangered cotton-headed tamarins froze to death on January 7 at the Alexandria Zoo in Louisiana. The incident occurred after a zookeeper forgot to bring the tropical monkeys indoors overnight, when temperatures dipped below freezing. The employee responsible for the deaths was immediately placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, but is reported to have resigned on January 12.

Cotton-headed tamarins (Saguinus oedipus) are small New World monkeys, endemic to the tropical forests of Colombia. They became protected by the Colombian government in 1969 in response to the large number of tamarins being exported for use in biomedical research and the exotic pet trade. Unfortunately, extensive habitat destruction and illegal trade has continued to hurt the tamarins’ numbers, with only 6,000 individuals believed to be remaining in the wild. Only 2,000 of those are mature enough to breed. 


The tamarins are on the IUCN’s Red List as critically endangered, which is one step up from being extinct in the wild. Over the last 18 years, the population of the species has been reduced by over 80%. The desperate condition of the species adds to the frustration many are feeling in response to losing the monkeys at the zoo due to human negligence.

“The incident is under investigation,” Public Works Director David Gill said in a press release, shared by Alexandria’s Mayor’s Office. “The employee is on administrative leave and has been removed from any animal care. This appears to have happened as a result of human error and not a system problem.” 

Though the employee has since resigned, not many details are being released due to the ongoing investigation. The zoo has not released any information regarding how these animals could have been overlooked or how many animals this individual was responsible for each night. It is known that a third tamarin was also left outside, but was able to survive the cold overnight temperatures. It is not clear if the tropical monkeys had access to a heater in their enclosure. While cotton-headed tamarins require temperatures between 24-29° Celsius (76-85° Fahrenheit), the weather in Alexandria, Louisiana on January 7 had a high of 11° C (52° F) during the day, with overnight temperatures dipping to -3° C (26° F).

The zoo’s director, LeeAnn Whitt, stated that the loss of the monkeys “is a tragedy.”


The Alexandria Zoo is fully accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, and is bound by their code of ethics for the proper treatment of animals in their care. It is not yet known if the zoo reported the tamarins’ deaths to the AZA, although it is not obligated to do so.

Animal rights group PETA has filed a request with the USDA to perform a federal investigation on the zoo, calling the death of the tamarins a “gross oversight.” PETA also listed three sections of the Animal Welfare Act the zoo is believed to have violated. These sections concern preventing animals from experiencing discomfort due to inappropriate temperatures, having adequate knowledgeable staff care for nonhuman primates, and demonstrating proper experience in caring for exotic animals. The request also asks for the USDA to “hold the zoo fully accountable for any and all violations” found.

[Hat tip: Washington Post]

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