Science & Technology

Unconventional Cuban woman played key role in early primate research

By Laura Becquer

Havana, Jun 8 (EFE).- Cuba was home to the world’s largest private primate sanctuary and research center during the first half of the 20th century due to the unconventional lifestyle of philanthropist and amateur scientist Rosalia Abreu.

A sort of Cuban Jane Goodall whose story is little known off the island, Abreu (1862-1930) at one time had in her possession more than 200 individual primates from 40 species, as well as parrots, peacocks, a tiger and a brown bear brought in from other parts of the globe, expert Tania Barquin told Efe.

This private zoo, the first of its kind in Cuba, was located at the wealthy Abreu’s 4.3-hectare (10.6-acre) chateau in what is now the Havana borough of Cerro, Barquin said while giving a guided tour of the site.

That eclectic estate that she inherited from her parents was redesigned by French architect Charles B. Brun in 1906, five years after it had been destroyed in a fire, a renovation project that marked the first use in Cuba of reinforced concrete – a construction material then en vogue in the United States.

Motivated by her love of animals, Rosalia, the sister of independence leader Marta Abreu, participated in and promoted years of study of primate behavior on the grounds of the chateau.

Those animals that showed signs of intelligence were treated like human beings: they lived inside the house, wore clothing and even became part of the servant staff, Cuban writer Ramon Fernandez-Larrea recalled on his online radio program Memoria de La Habana.

In one installment dedicated to Rosalia Abreu, he recalled that people began to disdainfully refer to Las Delicias as “Finca de los monos” (Monkey Farm) because of the large number of primates living there.

Abreu trained three generations of simians, and many of her monkeys understood her when she spoke or responded to her expressions of affection, according to the radio program.

But the most notable event came in 1915 when a chimpanzee named Anoma became the first member of its species to be conceived and carried to term in captivity.

Experts from Cuba and around the world witnessed Abreu’s eccentric life-style first-hand, including Yale University’s Robert Yerkes, an American pioneer in the study of primates’ social behavior who conducted research on the estate and published a book dedicated to her in 1925 titled “Almost Human.”

Born on Jan. 15, 1862, in what is now the central province of Villa Clara, Abreu studied in the United States (as was customary at that time for nearly all Cubans from wealthy families), married a Cuban doctor in France and returned to her homeland in 1899.

Upon returning to the island she moved into Las Delicias, where she amassed an enormous collection of animals and made observations about their behavior.

A member of a family that supported Cuba’s struggle for independence during the 10 Years’ War from 1868-1878, she also donated large sums of money for the construction of hospitals, convents and orphanages.

Las Delicias is currently a technological park operated by Cuba’s state-run Computer Software and Audiovisual Media Enterprise (Cinesoft).

Now closed to the public due to the Covid-19 pandemic, its 101 employees are carrying out maintenance at that spacious site, whose installations include gardens, computer game rooms and restaurants. EFE


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