Monday, August 11, 2008

When Chimps Attack!

Everybody’s got something to hide, except for me and my monkey
- The Beatles

Until last week, the only monkeys I knew were Tarzan’s Cheeta and Curious George, which led me to believe that monkeys were attracted to men with limited vocabularies or yellow hats. The only yellow hat I ever owned was a hardhat that I wore during my summer job with the local Public Works Department for my hometown. Given that I was an awkward teenager well into my 20’s, my supervisor thought it best that I wear it to prevent serious head trauma when operating heavy equipment like lawn mowers or paint brushes. Sadly, I was asked to return it after I completed my time there, so, without a yellow hat to call my own, I had to trust that my abysmal command of the local Nigerian language would be enough to secure the affection of my fellow primates.

With a week’s vacation circled on the calendar for the beginning of August, I boarded a van bound for Calabar on Nigeria’s southern coast. Highway travel in this country is enjoyed only by masochists and the mentally unstable, and usually both qualities are found in the drivers of public transport. This trip was no exception. Our driver on this occasion favoured a genre of music best described as gospel gangsta, with lyrics like “Shake your booty to the left that Jesus gave you, Shake your booty to the right for the Lord”. I tried to see if the four nuns on board were singing along, but they seemed to be too busy praying that our driver would stop playing chicken with oncoming transport trucks. Ten hours later, I shook my booty out of the van and met Kristel and Esther for the next leg of our trip.

The sanctuary for the monkeys that we would be visiting is located at Afi Mountain, near the border with Cameroon. Home to orphaned drill monkeys and chimpanzees, it has become known as the Drill Ranch, which conjures up images of monkeys in tiny cowboy hats riding sheep and spitting monkey-sized wads of chewing tobacco. Well, it does for me, at least. Operated by Pandrillus, an organization dedicated to the protection of drill monkeys and chimpanzees, the Ranch has been taking in orphaned monkeys for the past dozen years or so, with the goal of reintroducing the drill monkeys into the wild. That same goal is unfortunately not realistic for the chimps, as they tend to become more habituated to humans, so survival on their own is unlikely. For more on Pandrillus and its operations, check out

The Ranch’s location is remote by design and getting there is only slightly easier than finding Shangri-La. The road leading to the Ranch is accessible only by motorbike or the sturdiest of jeeps. With no money to rent the latter, we jumped on the backs of a trio of bikes and sped off into the forest. Now, I’ve had some wild bike rides since arriving in Nigeria, but nothing compares to that one. We flew up and down muddy hills so fast that my rear end spent more time in mid-air than on my seat. I held on to my driver so tightly that I think he was expecting an engagement ring at the end of the ride.

The destination proved worthy of the perilous journey. The Ranch is in a beautiful location, with Afi Mountain dominating the horizon and lush forest surrounding the camp. Cabins are placed to maximize the opportunities to see the drills, so we could sit on our front deck and watch them hop from tree to tree. Our first afternoon was spent trekking in the forest canopy on a walkway suspended high among the trees, followed by a swim at a nearby waterfall on Bano Stream. Both were pleasant enough, but I couldn’t help thinking that I didn’t risk my life for nature walks. I came to see the monkeys, dammit! But the approaching darkness meant we’d have to wait until the next day to see the star attractions. Until then, we sat in the dining area and marvelled at the dozens of bats flying past our heads, some so close you could feel the breeze of their wings. The camp mongooses also provided entertainment, as the pair of them dug for insects around our feet and attempted to finish our meals for us.

An early morning rain shower the next day proved mercifully brief, and the skies cleared enough for us to join the staff on their rounds to feed the monkeys. First up were the drills, Separated into six groups, their numbers have jumped from seventy orphans to a community of almost three hundred monkeys, two hundred of whom were born into the project. Watching them feed, one could sense the power of these animals. The males were especially impressive, built like weightlifters, with broad shoulders and purple and fuchsia asses. OK, maybe weightlifters don’t have colourful asses, but speaking of asses, we also saw a number of females with swollen behinds, which meant they were ready for mating. Obviously, this is a key difference between our species, because if any guy ever said, “Hey, honey, is it just me or is your ass looking huge?”, he could pretty much count on sleeping on the sofa. The drills were somewhat skittish in our presence, but we still managed to see them up close through the electric fence. One male seemed particularly interested in me, even with my bony ass. He continued to present his ass to me, while showing his fangs. “He’s smiling at you,” said the attendant, “That means he likes you.” Maybe for his next meal, I thought.

If the drills were interesting, their chimpanzee cousins were fascinating. Fewer in number because no breeding is allowed, the chimps lived up to their billing as our closest relative. As we approached the enclosure, a rope stood shoulder high between us and the fence some eight feet away. When asked why the rope was there, the attendant explained that it marked how far most of the chimps could throw. Point taken, we lined up behind the rope to watch the attendant feed them. The differences between the chimps and the drills were quickly recognizable. Where the drills were reactive to the food being tossed, the chimps actively motioned and called for it to be thrown to them. They also tended to become irritated if people just stood and stared at them, so we were encouraged to wave our arms and jump up and down. Soon, we were smacking our heads like we were auditioning for a Three Stooges film

Somewhat emboldened by our success at making complete fools of ourselves, we ducked under the rope and walked along the fence toward a stream that passed through the area. One of the big males followed us and waded into the stream on his side of the fence. “Watch out!” cried the attendant, as the chimp swiped his arm through the water and heaved a handful at us. Taking their cue from him, some of the others grabbed mud and began tossing it at us. At least, I hope it was mud. I admired their aim – my camera bag took a direct hit as we ran for the safety of the rope. Taking their food with them back into the forest, the chimps clearly had had enough of our company, one of them making farting noises with her mouth as they left. I loved it. Animals with attitude. I definitely wanted to see more of them. As it turned out, this was part of their plan.

Given the chance to return for the afternoon feeding, Kristel and I once again took our places in the safety zone behind the rope. A larger group of chimps had gathered this time, the most distinctive being a grey-haired male who was approaching his 20th birthday and likely facing his mortality. As before, the attendant encouraged interaction and we happily obliged. The chimps watched us carefully throughout. It’s a cliché to speak of the intelligence behind those eyes, but it’s also too striking not to mention. The feeding complete, the attendant moved on to the next compound and left Kristel and me alone with the chimps for the first time. Without any new tricks to show them, they soon grew bored with us and seemed more interested in scratching themselves. So, we decided to walk around the perimeter of the compound. As we left the safety zone, the path between the forest and the enclosure narrowed to a single track. Suddenly, one of the chimps charged, picking up ammunition as he ran. “Fuckaduck!” yelled Kristel, which I assumed was Dutch for “Run!” So we did. A hailstorm of half-eaten pineapples and mud came our way as we reached the forest on the first corner and put some distance between us and the surly monkey. A piece of wood the size of my head soon followed, again with a toss of admirable accuracy. I began to long for my yellow hat. “I don’t like these monkeys,” Kristel said under her breath, her head carefully turned in case they could read lips.

Her vote was to abandon our stroll and head back to our cabin, but I refused, determined to show this monkey what he missed by stopping short on the evolutionary ladder. Peeking out through the branches, we spotted him sitting well away from the fence. As we approached the path, he reached over for a piece of fruit and made a half-hearted attempt to eat it, all the while glancing over his shoulder at us. If he could have whistled nonchalantly, he would have. “You don’t fool me, monkey” I muttered to myself as we inched along the path. Sure enough, as we came even with him, he charged again, his faux snack turned into a nasty projectile. “Fuckaduck!” yelled Kristel. So we did. Eventually, our hairy assailant gave up the chase, likely determining that we were no match for him.

As we caught our breath, the old-timer we had seen earlier came running toward us. Bracing for the worst, we saw instead that he only wanted to walk with us, but the effort of running had been hard on him. One of his back legs had apparently been partially paralyzed since he was an infant and combined with his now advanced age, it clearly pained him to run. So, we sat with him for a few minutes until he caught his breath, and then we moved on slowly to allow him to keep pace.

At the last corner before the safety zone, the path narrowed even further. Perfect place for an ambush, I thought. And so did the chimps. Racing from their hiding place, four of them formed a simian gauntlet between us and the exit and began to pelt us with whatever they could get their paws on. “Fuckaduck!” yelled Kristel, but it was too late. They had us pinned against the forest. I was laughing so hard at our predicament that I managed to swallow some of the mud that hit me in the face. I briefly considered retaliating, but in the mud-throwing department, I was clearly outgunned. Instead, we made a break for it, dodging monkey missiles as we sprinted for safety. Reaching the no-fly zone, we collapsed on each other in helpless laughter. I’m sure our attackers were exchanging high-fives on their side of the fence, but I refused to give them the satisfaction of looking back.

“So, what does ‘fuckaduck’ mean in English?” I asked as we walked back to our cabin, spitting out mud as we went. “That was English”, Kristel replied.


Anonymous said...

Hey Glenn, yep the chimps def steal the show @ Afi. I see you met Pablo from the photos and I believe you met Murphy from the descriptions - kai, he's a moody one. Love the stories, keep em coming :-) Aine

Anonymous said...

Hey, hey, hey, we're the monkeys.

I was a bit confused by the "drill" reference, esp with your detailed description of bulbous red asses and such like.

Not that I've never seen red asses on monkeys -- at the zoo, of course. Except that I've always seen them referred to as mandrills, not drills.

Perhaps the 'man' epithet is too sexist in these more PC times? maybe it's a totally different species of monkey -- drill vs mandrill? Mandrills have blue stripes outlining [as in highlighting] their bulbous red asses, don't they? maybe I should watch more Discovery Channel and less Law and Order [the other monkeys that go beserk]?

The joys of anthropomorphism: when we attribute human characteristics to non human animal species [starting with Aesop and deteriorating to Disney].

It leaves us disarmed when we encounter the "less than cute" but perfectly natural "behavior" of animals at home [like the male humanoid watching football, drinking beer, scratching his crotch, picking his ass and farting -- ignoring the beer and football reference, we have a detailed picture of the mandrill in the zoo].

The drill that shows its fangs isn't showing his affection or attraction to you, despite what the attendant asserts. Dammit, he's baring his teeth, and that means dinner.

The chimps that behave badly are protecting their territory, and even that description is a sociological distinction made up by sociologists trying to understand human behavior, not by chimps, who don't give a damn about understanding anything [how blissful that must be].

Wild Kingdom [now I'm giving my age away] was perverse precisely because it perverted our sense of the universe in so many ways. It brought animals into our living rooms and introduced us to the behavior of so many different species.

There was even a scandal that the white haired old man pretending to be the "great white hunter" actually faked the more vicious attack scenes, for the sake of TV sensation -- how's that for au natural and the perversion of TV as an educational medium.

While it hardly indulged in Disney-like anthropomorphism, Wild Kingdom actually "domisticated" wild animals precisely by bringing them into the living room via TV.

Now this may sound like a Macluanesque riff on hot-cold media, nonetheless we are duped into thinking that anything entering our domesticity is somehow domesticated, if not completely house trained.

So that cheetah walking along the jungle path near our tour jeep is really "lovely" to look at -- a thing of beauty -- and not a fanged, clawed predator glancing at dinner in a tin can, namely "people in a jeep" as a new food group.

On one of my Rocky Mountain trips, I saw some numbnuts actually get out of their cars to photograph an adolescent grizzly walking along the side of the highway. Luckily, he ignored them and their digital cameras.

But I found it astounding that few admitted to the vast gulf that separates the animal, driven solely by the need to eat and survive, from the human, driven by so many conflicted needs as to defy clear understanding. This grizzly was "beautiful" precisely in its unpredictable but certain power to crush, rip, maim and destroy, not because it somehow resembled Yogi from Jello-stone Park.

This inability to acknowledge distance -- to admit to the unbridgable gap -- leads to such other obnoxious and less innocent behavior that I witnessed on another day during the same trip. We were driving out of Golden, BC, and encountered a flock of mouflin on the road -- stunning animals. They simply stood there, oblivious of our presence, and we had to stop and wait for them to move.

When they showed little signs of acknowledging our need to press on in our journeys [and why should they], one jackass of bottomless stupidity drove up to the herd and nudged them with his car bumper. He was a local businessman [not a local woodsman] and knew how to handle these things.

The rest of us dropped jaws in outrage and amazement. The gap between "them" and us did not exist, for he had no intention of wasting his time on the natural flow of things. All you had to do, he seemed to say, was give one or two of them a little shove, and the rest moved away, just like on the subway.

So you were pelted by mud -- are you sure it was mud and not something else? and even as you spit it out of your mouth, how would you know whether it was mud and not something else? Have you ever tasted that something else? have you ever tasted mud, for that matter?

While the altnerative might be too gross to consider, mud sounds just a little too clean, even at a drill ranch [which also sounds too Wild Kingdom for words].

I know I'm being cynical, and my comments are just a little too trite [but not contrite], possibly for the sake of trying to be funny and entertaining -- a stretch indeed because I am hardly funny. Maybe I'm trying to consider a slightly different approach to what is beautiful.

"The Ranch is in a beautiful location, with Afi Mountain dominating the horizon...." Indisputable indeed...and your wonderful description is further validated by the stunning pictures of drills and chimps.

But it's the drill that bared its fangs which manifested the greatest beauty to me -- not because the picture is stunning [which it is] but because more than a tinge of fear is embodied in the scene. Fear of being attacked, molested, wounded, even killed -- fear captured and felt in both drill and the drill-picture-taker.

The mandrill in the zoo that "plays" with itself is not a porn star masturbating for our titillation or horror, depending on which side of the Victorian bed sheet we choose to position our reactions. Nor is it doing something "natural", which is a very human definition of acceptability, as if the animal needs to be accepted by humans and have a place within the constellations of our universe.

It is simply doing, and that is neither good nor bad, open to neither meaningful classification nor domesticated characterization. And that very gap is awesome and fearsome in its unknowability -- therein lies beauty at its most raw manifestation.

When you opened this blog with your photograph, I saw "marks" on your face, and I was afraid you were clawed by these animals. I did not see mud; I saw much for accuracy in observation.

As Descartes asserted, sense data are not trustworthy because the senses fool you [or as Dr House would say, they lie]. You see what you want to see, and meaning arises from the imposition of the senses that automatically interpret and interpolate [the little and big lies of meaningfulness], not from seeing what simply is [welcome to Phenomenology 101, a course in Husserlian non logic, spiced with a dash of Heidegger and a dram of Gadamer -- you need more than a dram, laddie, to get through this].

Your pictures are awesome not only because they are technically stunning, but also because the damned monkeys stare back at us with eyes that seem to see more than we do. To the cheetah or the grizzly, we are lunch, and nothing more. And that frightens the crap out of me. And it is beautiful to acknowledge something so awesome.

The "beautiful" should raise the hairs on the back of our necks, just as it should raise the hackles of our minds in its meaningfulness. It's not only what it says and means, but what it does....

Art is not just about meaning: what the artist intends or is saying or what we are interpreting or even seeing with the mind's eye as we see with the eye itself.

It's also about the end of meaning, the limitation of expression, the bankrupcty of's about the feeling in the gut -- the inexplicable aha, the shiver down the spine, the fear of the unknown and unknowable.

It's at root about encountering the abyss where time and meaning have no place, yet from which both time and meaning arise...the fang, the claw, the eye that stares [Medusa-like], the predator that stalks, the senelessness of the mud-slinging chimp what might be defending its territory or might simply be slinging shit.

....ok, enough...too Heidegger, even for me and especially on an August evening after a wonderful weekend of drinking fine wine and eating Ahi tuna al fresco at an exclusive marina on the shores of the Potomac in Maryland near Chesapeake Bay [such is life without a wife but with lots of friends].

Let's get back to giggling at drills playing with themselves and ancestor chimps hurling shit at their evolved future.

Whew, sometimes I get too caught up in my own downward spiral into meaning/meaninglessness. Gotta keep it upbeat.

Can you imagine taking a lecture course from Martin Heidegger? what stamina do you need to face of all that teutonic angst?

BTW, I have heard recorded lectures by Heidegger; he had a high squeaky voice that sounded like Mickey Mouse playing Steamboat Willy -- how's that for irony: the Sturm und Drang of Mickey the Mouse - a newly discovered treatise by Herr Heidegger.

We were talking about monkeys, dammit, not Sein und Zeit oder Moeglichkeit oder Ansich-und-Fursich dialectic [hello, Hegel, how ya doin'].

Damn you, Glenn. Damn you! It's all your fault. I live such a simple life enjoying food and wine, sunshine and laughter. Then you toss me willy-nilly into the monkey farm -- claws and fangs, mud and shit. Hey, hey, hey, indeed, we are the monkeys.

Keep well and happy; make sure it's only mud, and not cuts, bruises, scratches and blood. Remember: you are in the woods, the jungle, and Robert Frost did not find this to be a happy place when he stopped on a snowy evening.