So this week we took our twelve-year old granddaughter to Monkey World, east of our particular Eden here, in Dorset. It’s just down the road from the Bovington Tank Museum, so we had to be careful not to end up with the Shermans rather than the Simians (or the Chieftains instead of the Capuchins). I’ve seen the brown tourist signs for it for years, and assumed it was a small sad zoo in which fat children could gawp at small sad monkeys in cages.
But actually it’s not. It’s grown to become a major international rescue centre for primates, and has a large site with near-Jurassic Park sized enclosures in which three, or maybe four, naturally-organised troops of chimpanzees live in separate territories, each carefully managed to ensure one, but not more, dominant male and so on. Likewise there are a couple of large (adopted) family groups of orang utans, whilst the gibbons live in their natural permanent pairs, and so on with the old and new world monkey species.
It’s still school holiday time, so sadly the place was crowded with screaming fat children, with their even fatter screaming parents ignoring the signs that told them how anxious screaming made the inmates. But that, together with the shop packed with soft toys and soft toy purchasers, is how they make enough dosh to carry on their excellent work.
I was aware of the way my attitude quickly became that of “I love humanity – it’s just people I hate.” On the one hand, I watched the animals, and particularly the great apes, behaving more or less naturally in complex individual ways (like the clown that kept grabbing the heels of the chimp in front when playing “follow my leader,” eventually getting an annoyed clout in return). The species were, in their different ways, all admirable, with their own particular worlds. But isolated from unnatural human association in laboratories or film sets, even our genetically closest relatives are clearly not humans, but animals. The realisation of our privileged position as rational beings in God’s world was driven home to me by that.
On the other hand, on my side of the glass there were the actual fat screaming families, too ignorant to read the signs that gave advice on how to behave, and lacking most of the dignity of the apes and monkeys on the other side of the barrier. One or two remarks from mature adults are worth recording in order… well, I guess in order for me to act the dominant male and get snooty about ‘οι πολλοι.
“Look – some of the monkeys have got tails and some haven’t. I wonder why that is?” (Because the monkeys without tails are apes, madam.)
“That big yellow one must be the mum, and the two small dark ones are the babies!” (Big sign explains how individual of larger species lives in peaceful association with two orphaned members of completely different species.)
“They’re just like those ones in the TV ad… yes, that’s right, meerkats.”
Then again, I was saddened to see just how people around the world have treated their most advanced animal relatives, to require their being brought to this sanctuary at all. Story after story was documented about creatures taken illegally from the wild, smuggled even more illegally in hand-luggage or packing-cases and sold for extremely large sums to people who knew it was illegal, and presumably why it was illegal. This commerce might be with travelling circuses in Indonesia or Eastern Europe, or to beach photographers in supposedly civilized Spain, to unscrupulous research laboratories, or to Hollywood agents who hire their animals out, ironically, to the producers of Friends for comedy story-lines about monkeys illegally kept in apartments.
Saddest of all, to me, they are sold for exorbitant sums to people in “animal-loving” Britain as exotic pets, and then kept in cages in dark kitchens by people not interested enough to research their needs and try to meet them. Once the animals get sick or prove difficult to keep, they are offloaded on to the centre – or not infrequently let loose in the grounds of zoos on the assumption that these will have facilities to catch and keep them.
The Centre’s particular beef in the UK is about the unregulated legal trade in a good number of primate species. There are auction websites (e-Bay not amongst them, thank goodness) which openly advertise such pets to all and sundry. These are amongst those that end up looking like Belsen victims.
Their teeth are knocked out to prevent them biting (even chimps, in the cultured EU), they are dressed in human clothes, fed on human food and sweets, poorly housed, and readily abandoned when they are no longer amusing.
And the most peculiar, adamic, thing about this mistreatment of animals is that the very reason for acquring these primates in the first place is the reason for the number of visitors at Monkey World: “He’s just like a little man, isn’t he?” I’ve mentioned the reinforcement of my conviction of human exceptionality as I spent a good while watching the chimps. But they are still our closest evolutionary relatives, and less academically speaking much of their behaviour is clearly like ours, and serves the same functions of play, family dynamics and so on. They are indeed the most man-like of the creatures.
So to mistreat one of these higher primates, which you bought for the very reason of its likeness to humans, is to deaden yourself to the instinctive respect for other people. If a monkey is like a child to you, you’re deliberately keeping a child in a cage. If a child-like chimp grows into a more aggressive adult, then the closest human analogy would be an adult with special needs, who ought to elicit our compassion, not our rejection.
One of them comes over
Got a monkey on his shoulder
And the monkey’s getting grinner
But his eyes are on the ground
He’s just hanging around. (The Stranglers)
It’s very easy, in a place like Monkey World, to reach the conclusion that the wrong species are in the enclosures.
And yet my impressions above are, I recognise, incomplete and unfair. Amidst the unruly parents and their endlessly snacking children were equally ordinary-looking people, whose overheard conversations showed that not only were they fully on board with the aims of the Centre, but in many cases were personally acquainted with the life-stories of particularly familiar individual primates, whom they visted regularly
There were notices aplenty, of one sort or another, recording the names of those who have forked out good money on their own, or loved ones’, behalf, to further the work of Monkey World. And there is an “adoption” scheme which, I’m pleased to say, our granddaughter was eager to join, albeit it with a grandmotherly financial grant. She eventually chose to sponsor an orphaned chimp called Bart, who had achieved a “poor boy makes good” story by becoming the dominant male of his very own troop. Bart was born just ten days after our granddaughter, so she feels a close affinity to his welfare, if not for emulating his career-path.
As ever, any encounter with the natural world is theologically instructive. In this case, apart from the reinforcement of the very special privilege of being a human being, I was once more impressed with the strange duality of the human condition – we are at the same time the most brutal of the beasts, and the most angelic custodians of nature. Only the story of events in the Garden of Eden make sense of that to me.