30 May 2007

Primate urge

In the jungles of Costa Rica, a research team studies the social politics of Capuchin monkeys. They quarrel. They copulate. They stab each other in the back. So do the monkeys.
Primate urge

Passion, violence and intrigue become part of daily life for researchers studying Capuchin monkeys in the jungles of Costa Rica. Credit: Vanessa Woods

I was squatting in the bushes when I felt something trickle down the back of my neck. I looked up. A monkey was squatting above my head.

“No. You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.”

The monkey took off.

There’s not a lot you can do with dignity when your pants are around your ankles. It was enough dealing with a host of winged predators buzzing around my bottom, not to mention finding something to wipe with. We weren’t allowed to leave toilet paper in the forest, so unless you wanted to carry a plastic bag full of dirty toilet paper all day, you had to use the foliage.

I was never organised enough to pick the leaves before I squatted. Once I absent-mindedly reached for a benign-looking maple-shaped leaf. It never made it to my bottom because the tiny needles started pumping poison into my skin as soon as they came into contact with my fingers. I howled and clutched my hand, thinking a nest of wasps was hidden in the leaves. The plant venom buckled my flesh like cellulite. It was a famous botanical specimen the Ticos call malamujer, literally, “evil woman”.

After that I learned to pay attention. Waxy leaves only. But my focused concentration left me open to attack.

“That little asshole!” I ranted as I tramped through the bushes towards my field partner Andreas, still doing up my fly. “A monkey just pissed on my head!”

I waited for Andreas’s reaction. Disgust? Surprise? Even laughter. But his antelope eyes were blank. “I think it was Paradise,” he said.

“I’m going to flush her down a toilet,” I stormed. “I’m going to tie her up in a plastic bag and throw her on the highway … as soon as I know who she is.”

My new monkey group, Nirvana, lived in a galactic wormhole. People were sucked in first thing in the morning, then spat out somewhere crazy at the end of the day.

On the way home the car was full of chatter about who was the next alpha of the Sin monkeys, or how many people were jumped on in Snow White’s group. Nirvana people were silent. No one knew what happened with their monkeys, and no one cared. I didn’t even know where Nirvana was, only that it was far and I never wanted to go there.

On my first day, Andreas and I walked for 35 minutes through the forest, crossed two rivers (one of which I fell in) and battled through a field of bamboo. We stumbled on the highway, which we followed until we came to an ugly quarry called Quebrador. Machines were halted mid-motion like great beasts eating away at the mountain. Piles of gravel glinted in the moonlight. A polluted stream circled the site, carrying out the effluent.

Andreas threw down his backpack. “Are you serious?” I said. “Nirvana lives above a construction site? Are they deaf or just crazy?” He shrugged.

The sky paled and the branches above began to shake, as though spirits trapped within were struggling to break out.

All morning we chased Nirvana along the cliffs of Quebrador. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of what looked like a troll – a protruding tooth, a scowling brow – but I never managed more than that before they bolted.

“They aren’t as habituated,” Andreas said. “They don’t like it when you look at them.”

“How am I supposed to learn about them if I can’t look at them?”

“Try not to be so obvious about it.”

I finally stole a peek from behind a tree. I was shocked. They were trolls. The males of Nirvana had bald foreheads and ogres’ teeth that protruded from their lips. The females had eyebrows that stuck out from their heads as though they’d been electrocuted. Apart from distinguishing the sexes, I couldn’t tell one from the other.

When I asked Andreas, he had helpful advice such as “Ecstasy’s the one hitting her baby” and “Tranquillity’s always chasing trucks down the highway”.

There was no way around it. To recognise these monkeys you had to be intimately acquainted. I knew from the start this was the last thing I wanted.

Also, they liked urinating on you.

At first I thought inbreeding had given them weak bladders, but after the fifth or sixth time, I realised they were doing it on purpose. They seemed to get a special kick out of weeing on me when I had my pants down. Then, if they defecated on me, oh boy, that was the jackpot. It was hard to believe such tiny animals could shoot such vast quantities of foul black poop from their bottoms. Their aim was flawless. They were like little Robin Hoods.

“I hate these monkeys!” I said for the 50th time that day. Andreas and I stared at the monkeys in silence. I was out with him a lot these days, since he was the only one who could recognise them.

I knew Andreas was 24, with a Mexican mother and a gringo father. Though we’d been living in the ‘monkey house’ for three months, we still had nothing to talk about. We tried music, but he had uber-cool, reactionary taste and I had never heard of anyone he liked. He didn’t read books and wasn’t interested in filming. So we spent most of the day with me running around calling out monkey IDs and him shaking his head as though I’d never get it right.

Towards the afternoon the clouds darkened and it began to rain. It had been drizzling since I arrived, but now the sky was flexing its muscles and getting serious. After an hour the rain was so thick I couldn’t see my hand stretched in front of me. Most monkeys stopped moving in the rain. Nirvana ran like gazelles.

We lost them across the river. I started to cross it, but Andreas grabbed my arm and shook his head. We watched as the river came tumbling down the hill, gathering speed and ferocity as it whipped branches from the sides of the banks and pulled rocks into the rapids. Its gurgling cries were the only sounds we could hear above the rain. Slowly it crept to our feet. We moved to higher ground.

I stared moodily into the river’s hypnotic surge of destruction. The rain slithered under my shirt and down my breasts. I thought about the night Charles left me with the monkeys while he skipped across the Atlantic to the girl who was waiting for him. He said I was as wretched as a cat in the rain.

I missed him. A hundred times a day I thought of something to tell him, only to realise he wasn’t there. He called a few times, the sound of his disembodied voice strange without his smell or touch. He never asked to come back, but we still talked as though we were lovers. He said he missed me; I said I wished he was here. The thought that he could jump on a plane and be in Costa Rica in four hours was even more painful than if he was on the other side of the world.

After those phone calls, I crept into my room and curled up on my bed, sure I had never been so alone in my life. Four phone calls later, I couldn’t cope. I told him I loved him but he couldn’t call me again. He didn’t.

The days I had left stretched out, too many to count, and each night I closed my eyes, dreaming of an escape from the little trolls that dwelt above the moonlit quarry.

Vanessa Woods is a researcher with the Hominoid Psychology Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. This is an edited extract from her book It’s Every Monkey for Themselves. For more information see her story “Monkey Melodrama” in Issue 15 of COSMOS.


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