“Ah....you did lock the monkey cage didn’t you?” Uh-oh. It might have been only my second day volunteering at the WFFT animal rescue centre in Thailand, but I was pretty sure the monkeys were meant to be on the inside of the cage. The fact that they were energetically swinging around on the outside of the door, gleefully climbing up poles and happily scampering along the ground was not, I surmised, a good sign. They were tasting freedom, and they didn’t look like they were in the mood to give it up.
The first thing I thought was “Can you get fired from volunteering?” the second was “where the hell are the bananas?” These I spotted on the ground outside the cage; I’d been using them earlier as bribes and I fervently hoped they were still the going currency. Carefully, quietly, trying not to excite them any further, I started throwing the bananas through the fence and into the cage. The inquisitive macaques might have been smart enough to escape, but they hadn’t worked out that they could just walk up to me and grab the bananas out of my hand. Mercifully, they ran back into the cage and gobbled up their prize as my fellow volunteer slammed the gate shut behind them, snapping the padlock in place. I glared at the offending lock before meeting the eyes of the other volunteer. He verbalised my thoughts: “I don’t think anybody needs to know about that”. I looked at the now caged monkeys smugly and notched up an invisible score card: Me: 1, Monkeys: 0.
Unfortunately for me, the score didn’t stay that way for long. While other animals at the centre didn’t seem to take their previous mistreatment at the hands of humans personally, the monkeys were hell bent on taking it out on every human who walked by. They gnashed their teeth at us, showed us their bottoms, shrieked, whooped and tried to grab us through the bars. An All-American sweetheart of a volunteer summed up her first experience with the primates like this: “At first I thought it was warm rain on my head, then I realised it was monkey pee”. Nice.
I was on the receiving end of this malevolent treatment just a few days later when a gibbon reached through the bars of her cage and literally ripped the shirt off my back. Getting undressed by a gibbon isn’t the most romantic experience I’ve had and my fellow male volunteer wasn’t sure where to look as I clutched the remnants of my shirt to me. Determined not to let the monkeys win, I tied it at the shoulder Grecian style and continued on. Score: 1 All.
In the world cup of monkeys v’s volunteers, the decider came just a few days later. A particularly clever macaque had managed to work out how to catapult himself over the top of the fence of his enclosure. At first, he just walked around the outside of his cage, dipping his toe in the water of freedom, then popped back in as if nothing had happened. But he was getting braver by the day and venturing further afield. And so as luck would have it, it was me that met him on the main path of the centre while he was out for a stroll and I was carrying a trailer load of fruit. Underestimating the allure of the fruit, I made a shooing gesture. That’s when the macaque turned from cute little Gizmo to full on Gremlin, launching himself at me, catching me full on in a sort of rugby tackle while he gnashed his teeth.
Lucky for me, my hero appeared in the form of a little golden mutt named Fong Beer who rushed up and barked at the offending ape as it was still trying to rip my head off. The monkey jumped to the ground and sauntered off in a “who me?” kind of way, glancing over his shoulder haughtily. I caught the glance and knew what it meant: the monkeys had won.
Have you ever worked with animals in another country? Comments welcome below.