April 19, 2007

Monkey Tales

According to an April 18, Associated Press news report out of Antwerp, Belgium, people visiting the Antwerp Zoo are being asked to stop staring at the chimpanzees.

According to the article, “a new set of rules was posted outside the chimp enclosure at the city zoo urging visitors, especially regular daily ones, not to form a bond with a particular male chimp named ‘Cheetah.’ He was raised by humans but is now trying to forge a social bond with the other seven apes at the animal park, a zoo official said Wednesday.”

First off, I think naming a chimpanzee “Cheetah” is a lot more damaging long-term to the animal’s identity development than people staring at him. Secondly, I read that news report and I was left thinking this was ultimately a great new concept for zoos: zoos where you’re not allowed to look at the animals.

Imagine, if you will, walking through a zoo, reading signs describing the animals you’re not allowed to look at. Visitors would have to shuffle through the zoo, their eyes downcast to avoid actually seeing any animals. Eventually, there wouldn’t be any need to even have animals. The zoo could just say, “oh, sure, there are animals; take our word for it.” Personally, I’d open a No-Look Zoo dedicated to extinct animals.

ZOO VISITOR: A dodo bird? Isn’t the dodo extinct?

ME: That’s what makes this exhibit so special; it’s the only dodo left alive on the planet. Just think how honored you are to be standing here in the presence of the last dodo in existence.

ZOO VISITOR: But how do I know? I want to look at it.

ME: Sorry, you know the rules. Now, if you’ll continue on through the zoo, be sure to visit the saber tooth tiger and brontosaurus exhibits. Those are worth the $18 price of admission alone.

All of the preceding nonsense was meant to segue into my own personal “chimpanzee staring” story. I know, I know, EVERYBODY has a “chimpanzee staring” story. “Chimpanzee staring” stories are practically cliché in this age of chimpanzee staring.

During the summer prior to my freshman year of high school, my family took a trip south to Arkansas, and while we were down there we stopped and visited a “safari” type of zoo where you drove your car through the park, staring at animals. Not all of the park was a drive through; some of it was walkthrough, where the animals were in cages.

In one of those cages was the most bored-looking chimpanzees I think I’d ever seen. This chimpanzee just laid there, refusing to do anything interesting for anybody. After about five minutes of staring at the languid beast we moved on down the line.

Suddenly, a great commotion rose up from the cage housing the bored chimpanzee. The cage was rocking back and forth and a great clattering and shrieking could be heard. I went running back to the cage to see what all the fuss was about. When I arrived at the cage, the chimpanzee was clinging to the sides, pushing and pulling at the bars, making the cage rock back and forth.

It was at that point something very unexpected happened. Without warning, I and several other onlookers were sprayed with some sort of warm liquid that originated from the chimpanzee. As you can imagine, I was pretty well horrified, because. . . WHAT WAS THAT LIQUID?!

Great speculation arose among us onlookers who had been doused. Were we just peed on? Was it something else none of us dared to even mention? For his part, the chimpanzee seemed quite pleased with himself, as he was laughing (yes, LAUGHING, or at least mimicking the act of laughing) and clapping his hands.

As we continued our discussion as to what just happened, the chimpanzee once again started raising a royal commotion, clearly trying to bring in another audience for his second act. This time, he managed to attract an even larger group of spectators, including my mother. Those of us who had just been doused wisely stepped back a safe distance.

Once the chimpanzee was satisfied with the size of his audience, he leapt down from the cage and, quick as a cat, drew in a big mouthful of water from his water dish, jumped back to the cage bars, and proceeded to spit the water on his unsuspecting entourage.

For my part, I was greatly relieved, because my fears about what I had been doused with were laid to rest. Chimpanzee water and saliva were, quite honestly, much preferred to the horror scenarios that had been playing in my head up to that point.

And the moral of this story is: chimpanzees like to be stared at, at least in Arkansas.

Posted by Ryan at April 19, 2007 02:30 PM | TrackBack

Of course, while chimpanzee piss is probably sterile, chimpanzee spit is chock-full of pathogens that-- what with chimps being our closest relatives in the animal kingdom --well. You see my point.

Any ER technician will tell you that a human-bite is just about the worst kind of flesh wound a person can get. I imagine chimpanzee-mouth is probably a similarly inhospitable place.

Posted by: Joshua at April 21, 2007 11:51 AM

Actually, Joshua, I was more concerned that the substance in question was more of the semen variety, which I suppose is pretty sterile in its own right. And while I agree chimp spit is probably swimming with disgust, I don't think I had any open wounds at the time that I necessarily had to worry about. Perhaps you're more comfortable being peed/ejaculated on than spit on, but when I was 15 years old, I was pretty much praying it was anything OTHER than pee/semen.

Posted by: Ryan at April 21, 2007 12:51 PM

they have similar warnings at the oakland zoo about staring at or making contact with the chimps that might be construed as affectionate behaviors. and they also have big signs warning you that the chimps will spit on you.

it all sort of just makes me really sad for the chimps. they're so much like us that getting to close to them makes them upset and/or causes them to interact in very human-child-like ways (spitting, etc) for attention. i understand zoos are really important for education and conservation, but i can't help feeling really sad for the individuals.

Posted by: amy.leblanc at April 23, 2007 02:37 PM
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