04.04.09

The Monkey Whisperer

Posted in Bolivia at 9:29 pm by Jackson Lee

Years ago, sitting in a quiet classroom with learning flying, I found myself looking around the room and wondering what would become of my fellow classmates. Barney – dress sense stolen from a metal worshiping cow and personality based on the lyrics from a “Rage against the Machine” song – if the music he loves rejects him where will he land? Josh – who’s ripped jeans prompted a dress etiquette review at school assembly – will his considerable intellect succumb and herd him up some corporate ladder? The ostentatious Angie with a lexicon thick with sentences Aristotle would cringe at and a faith based diet of roots and grains – where will the battle against “the system” lead her?

Everyone was weird (it was a common trait at Wellington High School) but a select few suffered acute Michael Jacksonism. Their outward display of individualism the first sign that generic conformity and mainstream security had been side-stepped well before their school uniform burnt. Unique and fascinating, with life paths leaning heavily towards the unpredictable, these people had an eye opening effect on my adolescent development. Turns out that there is a place in Bolivia, fill to the brim with organised chaos, where these kind of people like to settle and briefly call home.

“He doesn’t like that grass”, were the first words that Andres Gomez said to me, “It grows too close to the main road and tastes like machines”.

Machines, I wondered but nodded amicably.

Like most people who dislike wasting time thinking about their appearance, Andres was dressed as simply as possible – in classic park ranger fashion – large black gumboots a few sizes too big, dirty green khaki shorts and a tan coloured, Inti Wara Yassi branded, long sleeve shirt. His long hair, black and curling like a musketeers, was tied back into a ponytail helping to accentuate the Count Dracula cut of his goatie.

Andres at one of the weekly theme parties

Born into the miss world infested, Caribbean heavy, black gold drowning lands of Venezuela, Andres was quickly shipped off to Europe to be raised and instilled with European values and middle class ambitions. Besting these social expectations he completed a university qualification in animal care and was soon working in one of Spains best animal centers. A few years later, like Luke Skywalker intergalactic pull to complete his Jedi training in Endor, Andres arrived in Bolivia and happened across Inti Wara Yassi and its desperate animals.

“Follow me”, he said and with freakishly long strides strode into the jungle – I jogged to keep up. Before heading up to Roy’s cage each morning, in a hippie like stage production, we collect tall grass stems which are later fed to the waiting puma. Most of the cat’s in the park are hooked on the stuff as it apparently tastes great and helps with their digestion.

Feeding Roy Grass

An hour earlier I had arrived at breakfast to the news that Josh was sick with a exhausting stomach infection and wouldn’t be working today. Walking the afternoon trials yesterday had turned into a nightmare as without warning, his stomach had turned on a volcanic tantrum of cramps and toilet urges. Twelve hours later he hadn’t eaten, had run up a high temperature and saluted the white god with numerous barrages of bile-heavy vomit. First Doug and now Josh – it seemed like a bad sign that my training duo were both out of action within two days of joining the park. So entered the chance to meet the monkey whisperer.

“Do you chew coca?”, he asked with a distinctive Latino, intent on dancing with everything, slur to his English.We had already found a more appropriate spot to pick Roy’s grass and were heading up the trial to the cage. “It tastes best when you add some sodium bicarbonate”.

My head shook. As with most of Bolivia, coca is chewed to help with any activity involving the words difficult or hard – especially physically demanding work. Little else was said as we walked. Roy was obviously excited to see Andres. Unlike short term cat volunteers, who typically stay for one to two months, Andres had been (on and off) part of Roy’s life for a few years now. Watching the two glow with their mutual company I couldn’t help make comparisons between them. Both were long and thin, shaped by the demanding environment of the tropical jungle. Each had a wildness and confidence which seemed to originate from their knowledge that they were both in their natural habitat.

Leading the content puma with a calming aura for the day, Andre’s recounted stories about his time with animals. The stories, punctuated by questionable realism, were accompanied by hand movements that were a mixture of kung-fu strikes and movements best associated with Mediterranean cooking. Pointing to the large tattoo covering the majority of his chest, which depicts the face of the first Chimpanzee he was involved in rehabilitating, he told the story of ‘Pablo the disliked’.

Sharing 94% identical DNA to humans (not 99% as is often quoted), Chimpanzees are the only other animal to use tools (apparently dating back 4300 years), display empathy (some say they laugh) and enjoy David Hasselhoff’s music. This intelligence and emotional understanding come’s with a cost – anyone working with Chimps must have high levels of competence – competence which Pablo was sadly lacking.

At the park where they worked, monkey handlers interact with the chimpanzees via a specially designed cage built to create the illusion that the humans, and not the monkeys, are caged. This illusion is achieved by building a small, outside access only, cage into the monkeys habitat which the monkeys can freely look into.

Making his lone way into the enclosure, Pablo was unaware of his poor status amongst the Chimps or that they had a plan for him. As he entered a baby chimp and 6 year old started making friendly cooing noises and beckoning for his attention. Moving closer to inspect the chimps suddenly reversed tactics and began banging against the cage bars, screaming and barring their teeth. Startled, Pablo stumbled backwards into the arm reach of a teenage chimp waiting silently behind him.

Having up to five times the upper body strength of humans, chimps are incomparably strong. The teenage chimp grabbed Pablo around the shoulders and hoisted him prone against the cage bars. Seeing their plan was working, the baby and six year raced around the cage and immediately began pulling off Pablo clothes. Pulling off everything, they took delight in dressing like the prone Pablo and acting out some of his mannerisms. Releasing him to a humiliating naked escape, the chimps bounced around triumphantly. Six million years ago humans and chimps branched off the evolutionary tree but one thing remains – having a laugh at someone else’s expense.

In a positive frame of mind, I returned from lunch to find Andres swinging comfortably in the broken spare hammock, beneath him a pile of wood chips and the chiseled shape of a freshly carved Inca figurine in his hand. With Roy sleeping peacefully we sat around chilling, enjoying the early afternoon, Bob Marley inspiring, vibe.

Parque Machia has different zones catering for the animals. The largest being the puma tracks which spread several kilometers away from the administration area. The Aviary, which is stationed near enough to one of the accommodation to provide its occupants with a constant barrage of creepy macaw (parrot) chatter, is a good place to visit when volunteers have free time. Monkey park is the most secluded area as it provides spider monkeys with a rehabilitation habitat and thus prioritises avoiding outside contact. The tourist trial and monkey mirador (lookout) are the only areas where tourist are permitted to visit – and it is in these two area’s, free for monkeys to come and go as they please, where the skills of a dedicated theft can be well applied.

There are two things a good theft needs – cunning and dexterity. Capuchins, the arch enemy of absent minded jungle dwellers, have generous amounts of both of these skills. Weighting, on average as much as coke bottles (1.5 to 4 kilograms), capuchins have comparatively large brains (35 to 40 grams which is up to 3% of their total body weight) and are thus as cunning as a well placed Blackadder quip. With exceptional speed and dexterity evolved for jungle survival, capuchins famously beat the Chinese national table tennis team while heavily intoxicated on rice wine stolen from the local Shaolin temple.

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In addition to the standard verbal warning to anyone arriving at the park, there are numerous signs warning of the dangers of interacting with the parks monkeys – most of which are ignored. Pockets and anything shiny are hypnotic beacons to inquisitive capuchins. Naturally understanding the mentality of fascinated humans, capuchins approach and climb onto unsuspectingly tourists and act out the lovable, photogenic, cute animal. Then, without warning, they will grab cameras, car keys, money (US$ preferred) or any other object within striking distance and disappear into the jungle. The parks information board often reads, “Please report any monkey seen with so-and-so amount of cash and so-and-so electronic item” – nothing ever turns up. Andres, delighting in anything mythical about animals, is convinced there is a monkey “El Dorado” somewhere within the park.

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With a mouth full of vowel morphing coca leafs, Andres recounted walking the trials one day and coming across a smashed camera. Recovering the SD card, he found a series of photos depicting a happy western (gringo) couple as they traveled through Peru and into Bolivia. The first imagine of Villa Tunari is of the lovely couple posing at the front gates of the wildlife park, next they are in front of the tourist office, then another taken at the head off the tourist trial. With excited expressions the couples next photo is near monkey mirador and in the background, looking intently into the camera, a wide eyed capuchin. Acting as cute as his furry face will allow and looking lovingly into the camera, the next photo has the capuchin sitting on one of the happy tourist shoulders. The final photo is taken on a skewed angle from high in the tree’s, the couple waving vigorously at the monkey thief far above – shocked expressions showing their realisation that the cute little capuchin has stolen their camera.

With the day coming to an end, Roy was being repainted in my head as a angel in a fur coat with a spontaneous and often sung purr. Walking back to the parks base, Andres told the story about when Roy and him didn’t get along so well.

It’s practically impossible for Roy to escape his rope but he managed it once during the month I spent working with him. After rolling around on his back, as usual, in a pile of apparently aromatic dirt, Roy got up and proceeded down the trial. It took a moment for me to realise that, in a Houdini impressing act, he had somehow unscrewed and unhitched the usually tightly fastened metal carabina which is attached to his neck collar. Either he didn’t realise he was free or had no interest in escaping (which is more likely) and didn’t take the opportunity to run away from us. In that moment, like realising the French had kicked the All Blacks out of another world cup, a avalanche of negative thoughts raced through my head – Roy mauling a local resident, someone shooting him or not finding him again. With heart racing, I rushed after him, grabbed his collar and quickly reattached the carabina. Two years earlier, two new volunteers weren’t so fortunate.

The two had been careless and taken Roy off his walking rope – instantly the puma had taken the opportunity to escape into the jungle. Park management were quickly alerted and search parties organised. From previous experience, it was known that Roy, when free, liked to visit and investigate other puma’s walking area’s.

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At the time, Andres and another volunteer were walking with a puma called Simba. They weren’t aware that Roy was on the loose. Simba picked up Roys scent well before Andres saw him cross the track ahead of them. Using the emergency rope (which is always carried by the second), Andres tied Simba to a thick tree and ordering the other volunteer to keep watch while he set off after the roving puma. He knew what had likely happened and concluded recapturing Roy immediately was the best way to avoiding bigger problems.

Moments later he came across Roy crouched aggressively in the underbrush; being natural stalkers who use surprise to bring down prey this was the natural position of a puma if threatened. With Simba’s walking rope in hand, Andres slowly approached the tense puma. Whether it was the smell of another puma on Andres clothes or the thought of jumping someone new, Roy, without hesitation, leapt onto him and brought him to the ground.

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With the puma positioned above and over him, Andres only option was to go for the neck collar, knowing that getting Roy reattached to the rope was the best chance of controlling him. The paired rolled around in a pile of arms and paws. Hearing the sounds of the struggle, the other volunteer was soon on the scene but stood stunned – helpless to act on the manic spectacle.

Blood started to fly. Roy’s claws had torn a long gash down on the outside line of Andres nose (which is now a distinctive scar), barely missing his left eye – his hands and arms soon joined the blood fest. By this stage he had managed to connect the emergency rope and successfully used it to leverage Roy into a less hostile position. Pushing hard on the rope forced Roy’s head and body backwards which gave Andres the opportunity to regaining his feet. Roy, not giving up, moved in a series of circles in a attempt to maneuver himself in front of Andres . Andres, using the reconnect rope to guide Roy’s body, kept behind Roy and avoided another jump. Soon Roy was settling down and Andres used the opportunity to tie him to a tree, assigning the shocked volunteer to keep watch over both cats.

Bleeding from multiple wounds, particularly badly from the face cut, Andres shirt quickly become saturated in blood, the usual crazy look in his eyes reaching new levels – his appearance reminisce of Rocky Barboa after a 12 round showdown. He set off to get medical help and alert everyone that Roy had been re-found. Reaching the tourist trial, a monkey soon noticed him and climbed onto his shoulder – and as they do with everything it began licking the blood on his face. The pair, acting out a gruesome sequence from a Hitchcock movie, turned a corner and strolled casually past a group of startled Bolivian tourists – the story ending with one of Andres, “One flew over the cuckoos nest”, inspired hysterical laughs.

Anthropologists say that there are Stone Age societies, but there is no such thing as a Stone Age language. Humans, no matter there origin, have brains that communicate language with equal complexity. It is people like Andres, who interact so gracefully and meaningfully with animals, that help us question our understanding of the wider scope of language in the animal kingdom.

I’m not sure what Andre’s classmate’s thought of him while he schooled in his non-native Spain, but without doubt they knew he was different. All these years later, his eccentricities have found a happy home at Inti Wara Yassi. My favorite memory of Andres is seeing his mere presence inject dance-party amounts of energy into groups of monkeys whenever he enters their habitats.