A pope may have many honors bestowed upon him, but perhaps one of the most curious ones conferred upon the current head of the Catholic church is that he has a namesake at the Jerusalem Zoo, a cotton-topped tamarin called Benedictus.

Cotton-topped tamarins are a critically endangered species. It is estimated that there are fewer than 10,000 left in the world today. The depletion of their natural habitat in tropical forests has brought about a drop in their population over the past 25 years. They are considered so precious that even the Jerusalem Zoo does not make its own decisions when caring for the animals but refers first to the European Endangered Species organization for advice. Although the zoo originally had just two tamarins, the monkeys have since multiplied, and some have been transferred to other zoos.

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The cotton-top gets its name from the spectacular plume of white hair that crowns its head and cascades down to its shoulders. Most of the zoo’s tamarins have names that relate to the word “white” in various languages. There is Blanca, Aviyada, Tamar Bhara, Viseg, Tsach – and Benedictus, who was born on the day Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Israel on an official visit.


The monkeys give birth twice a year, usually to twins. The whole family pitches in to take care of the young. The father usually carries his young around on his back, and then passes them over to the mother for weaning. As the baby tamarins get older, they learn how to take care of their younger siblings in the same way, perhaps setting an example for some of their younger visitors. After three or four years, the young tamarins reach maturity, at which point their parents chase them out of the tree, sending their offspring on their way to establish their own families.

Tamarins are nervous little monkeys with a racing metabolism that requires them to eat all day. In their habitat at the zoo, they spend their time looking for food that is scattered around the space or is placed in special dispensers that demand a little thought and effort before giving up their prize. To meet their energy needs, they have to feed several times a day, and their dietary requirements are quite complex. The tamarins are served baby cereal in the morning, fruit to snack on during the day with a live insect appetizer, and a dinner of chicken, egg, baked potatoes or sweet potatoes.

The tamarins are active throughout the day. When they aren’t foraging for food or running for cover, they occasionally take a few moments to observe their observers. But not for long. There is always something else that attracts their attention or sends them scurrying to hide.
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