Who's looking at who?

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Drug addiction, malnutrition, broken bones ... not what you'd normally associate with monkeys. Sean Coughlan visits a rescue centre in Dorset

There's something eerie about looking a monkey in the eye, because the look that comes back is so close to your own. Wandering round the ape rescue centre at Monkey World in the Dorset countryside, there are plenty of chances to get a close look at our primate cousins: chimpanzees, orang-utans, gibbons, lemurs, capuchins and the oddest apes of all, the humans who crowd around the glass windows, climb into the observation platforms and peer through the fences at the other apes inside.

On the human side, it's all gawping and rushing for the best view, bristling with cameras and fast food. But looking back from the other side of the fence, the monkeys are a much cooler crew.

They seem to be able to stay completely still for ages, hunched in the grass, until they're stirred now and again to give themselves a big, fat comfortable scratch, or for an older chimp to cuddle an infant or to play fight with a young one.

The monkeys are kept in large enclosures on a 65-acre site, which are intended to allow the 150-plus primates to live in something like their natural social groups.

This is a rescue centre rather than a zoo, and the intention is to give the monkeys a chance to enjoy life rather than perform tricks for visitors.

Nonetheless, you can get a good view of these intriguing creatures, including what is said to be the biggest group of chimpanzees outside Africa.

Another difference from the usual wildlife park experience is the strong emphasis on the monkeys being seen as individuals, and not just anonymous examples of a species. Outside the enclosures, there are photographs and names of the individual animals, with a description of their character.

This seems to have an effect on some of the human visitors.

There is a woman telling anyone who will listen that she has travelled to see a particular chimpanzee, whom she talks about like a long lost relative (which, of course, for all of us is sort of evolutionary truth).

These mini-biographies of the monkeys also show a much darker side of our relationship with the animal world. While we press up against the glass to get a look at our ape cousins, the reason that many of these monkeys are here is because they were being treated so appallingly by their previous human custodians.

The centre was originally set up by Jim and Alison Cronin to look after monkeys used and abused as tourist gimmicks on Spanish beaches, dressed up and used as a prop by photographers.

Charlie, a 20-year-old chimp now running around Monkey World, had been used for tourist photos in Spain. When he was rescued, as a five-year-old, he was addicted to the drugs used to keep him under control, he had had his jaw broken and only had four of his teeth left. Trudy, seven, was described as "just a shell of a chimpanzee" when she was brought to Monkey World as a two-year-old, after she'd been kicked and whipped by a British circus trainer who was taken to court over the incident.

There were many other monkeys who had been caught and confiscated from illegal pet smugglers, who had taken young monkeys from the wild to be used as playthings.

There is something particularly grim hearing about drug rehabilitation treatment for chimpanzees, and how the rescued monkeys have to be treated for malnutrition, anaemia, broken bones and machete wounds.

There were other, less dramatic, but in some ways more disturbing images of how some humans treat monkeys. There was a group of stump-tailed macaques which had been used for asthma research - an experience, which Monkey World says, had left them unfit, overweight and isolated.

It's uncomfortable to look into the faces of these intelligent animals and to think they've spent a miserable lifetime in a cage for our benefit.

Elsewhere, there was a lively little monkey that had been kept in someone's back garden shed, in complete isolation, for 35 years.

The centre is also a reminder of the range and variety between the different types of monkey.

The chimpanzee might provide our typical image of a monkey, but how about a lemur? These are running free in a section of the park - and these friendly, long-tailed creatures are more like cats with hands. And to think that these are our genetic cousins is even weirder.

There are also gibbons, originally from Sumatra, which stay as monogamous couples all their lives, and sing duets with one another. An example to us less than perfect humans.

Orang-utans close up have an expression of permanent comic surprise and look like red-haired clowns padding around in costumes that don't quite fit. The orang-utans in Monkey World had a piece of sacking in their enclosure which they kept wrapping around their faces like a headscarf. Was this some kind of private joke about the oddly dressed people looking in at them?

This is a thought-provoking as well as enjoyable place to visit, with plenty of space to wander and some particularly good playgrounds for children. The site also has good wheelchair access with motorised scooters available to disabled visitors.

Monkey World, Wareham, Dorset BH20 6HH. Tel: 01929 462537; email: apes@monkeyworld.org; www.monkeyworld.org. Admission for school groups costs pound;4. Visits must be booked in advance. Open daily from 10am to 5pm


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