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Monday, February 8, 2016

Year of the Monkey

Happy Chinese New Year!  Today begins the Year of the Monkey!

For thousands of years, monkeys and apes have had a special spot in the hearts of people.  They've been incorporated in menageries since time immemorable, kept as pets, worshiped (even mummified in Ancient Egypt), and sometimes even trained to work alongside humans.  At the same time, they've also been held up as a derogatory slur, an implication that someone isn't quite human, or is just pretending; in recent years, it's especially taken on racial connotations.  "Monkey" might be the only animal that I've heard some visitors use as a term of endearment (usually referring to their kids as monkeys), while at the same time hearing others use as an insult.

I've never really enjoyed working with monkeys - at least not compared to other animals - but it would be hard not to understand the fascination that they hold over us.  When you look in their eyes, it's not like looking into those of another zoo animal - a bear, a bison, a big cat - but not quite like those of a person, either.  It's an intelligence, like ours but different in ways that are hard to explain.  And when you watch a troop of monkeys interact, either at the zoo or in the wild, it's easy to get the vibe that you're peeking, a voyeur into someone else's family life.

Monkeys and other NHP (non-human primates in the acronym-happy world of zoos) are among the most demanding animals in terms of their care requirements.  Varied diets.  Complex habitats.  Plentiful enrichment.  Lots of social interaction.  Security - they're geniuses at escape.  Oh, and they can be absolutely filthy, which makes cleaning up after them a delight.  The monkey exhibits that I care for are each easily as much work as two or three other exhibits combined, especially if you count all of the time I have to spend researching, designing, and building new toys for them to break.

Still, they have their fans, and in the eyes of those keepers, monkeys are worth every bit of aggravation... and then some.

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