Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Aw......aren't they CUTE!!

NO!! They are NOT cute!

One of my favourite things to say to people when I'm standing in Squirrel Monkeys on a cold Sunday afternoon is 'Yes, they might look cute and cuddly, but they're bitey and sharp', something some visitors find out on their own, to their detriment, and ALWAYS due to their own stupidity.

I sometimes find myself panicking slightly in Squirrels when it's a nice day and there are hundreds of visitors, the monkeys are all out and Bounty is throwing his weight around like a steroid junkie. I have first hand experience of how nasty minkies can be, I have scars!! SCARS!! So when silly people are wandering around poking their hands and cameras directly into the face of our testosterone-fuelled alpha-male, something inside me snaps.

Those of you who know me well will know that I once spent a month in the South African bush at the Vervet Monkey Foundation. Many of my mates at uni had had the sense to wander off to a far flung destination to gather data for their dissertations. Don't get me wrong, I had plenty of fun sat in the library reading about the sex life of eels....but I felt I'd missed out just a tad. So in October 2005 after I had graduated, I set off on an epic adventure to play with monkeys, my dream...and my did it come true!

For those of you who may never have come across a Vervet monkey, they are intriguing little creatures. They're quite closely related to baboons, but smaller. They do, however, possess the characteristic canines...nasty weapons. They're a light grey colour, with dark detail around their faces. One of the most striking things about them is their bright blue bellies, and for the boys, bright blue balls. I have no idea what evolutionary function this could possibly serve....but they have it! When vervets are angry with you they raise their eyebrows to stretch the skin across their forehead so you get this flash if evil eyes and white eyelids...it's a bit freaky and I lost count of the times I broke off eye contact and put my hand in front of a baby monkeys face to distract it!

Vervet monkeys are persecuted as pests in South Africa, the Foundation are working hard to try and turn this around. They take in orphan monkeys whose mothers have been shot by farmers etc. The idea in the long term is to create a Vervet Forest, to buy a section of land that they can protect and let the monkeys roam freely. At the moment the emphasis is on protecting those they already there.

The Foundation was a very cool place to work, we lived in 'Tent Village' where there was no electricity and half the tent doors were done up with velcro to stop the nasties getting in, the zips had broken along time ago. One night I must have failed in my anxious fumblings to hermetically seal my tent, as I woke up with a rather large Wolfie laying next to me. There was no need to panic, Wolfie was just a rather large and over-excitable dog. Though he was a horny little bastard, one can only wonder what he'd been up to before I awoke *suspicious*. Showers were 1 per day, and cold. We had no water supply, so once or twice a day, some guys from the Foundation had to drive down to a local farm and fill a massive tank with water for our daily showers.

You ALWAYS showered in the afternoon....once you were nicely covered in monkey poop.

So, my role at the Foundation was one of the 'Monkey-Mums'. I was allocated to the Goliath Troop, a little group of 11 one-year old orphan vervet monkeys. I've never been the maternal type, but these guys did bring it out of me a little bit I must admit......at least at first. I don't remember all their names now sadly, but there are some characters that stood out whom I DO remember:

Omajie (Omakie) - the biggest female and the leader of the troop. Heirarchy is embedded in these animals, they naturally organise themselves and Omajie was definitely on top. I found this out a few days into my motherhood when one naughty monkey jumped on my hand, making me hit Omajie on the head. The next thing I knew she was waving her eyebrows at me and 11 sets of tiny monkey teeth were ripping at my arms and legs. OW!! That was the first time...clearly Becki wasn't in charge.

Tjopie (Choppy) - was a mischief maker. She had figured out that if she climbed up the front of my trousers and grabbed my zip with her teeth...then let go...my trousers fell down. I had a popper at the top too, but most times that was undone...the trousers didn't fit quite as well as I'd hoped.

Stinky - I don't actually remember this little guys name, but I know it was something like that! He was rather thrust upon me after my first week there, he had been in a sick bay and noone had thought to warn me of his existence. 'Oh Great', I thought, a new one....a boy, and here I am a stranger, will he kick off? I had no need to worry, he was the sweetest little thing and spent most of his day sat on my shoulder, tightly gripping myhair or my neck. He did, actually, give me the nastiest bite I recieved whilst there, a 'scared' bite...I walked a bit too close to a big male in a neighbouring cage and he freaked out!

Bekkie - :D She was lovely and gentle. She'd stuff her face like a pig, and one day I realised why. The more dominant individuals would grab her head and pull it back, then fish out anything she had stored in her cheek pouches! Rudeness!

Here are some of my favourite memories of the VMF:

  • Being out in the main enclosure when a dust storm whipped through and all of a sudden I had 11 baby's sitting on my lap staring at me in abject terror.

  • Zorro (slightly mad adolescent vervet) sticking an ice cream tub on his head and running around the chicken wire making a hell of a racket, just to grab my attention and make me laugh.

  • Being in with the uber-babies and noticing a funny sensation around my feet. I looked down to find one of them contentedly sucking on my toe. It was the cleanest it had been in a couple of weeks.

  • Katie (my tent-mate) and I pissing ourselves laughing after she'd sent the dogs in to join me on the Eco-Toilet. It was pitch dark and I heard some strange scuffling sounds coming from the corner, I switched my torch on to find 4 dogs sitting round me in a semicircle whist I was squatted on this damn toilet with my knees around my ears.

  • Bekkie falling asleep on my lap and sleepily rubbing her eyes when she woke up..then getting hiccups from drinking her milk too fast.

  • Being in Goliath when Vic walked past, he was a big guy, and the babies didn't like men for some reason. He shouted 'BOO!!' through the bars, and 2 babies simultaneously shat down my shoulders. Worse...they'd been eating beetroot.

Now I've started thinking of them there are so many, I won't share them all, you'll be completely bored.

Suffice to say, my experience at the Foundation was an amazing one, it was my first real time away from home completely by myself, I met some incredible people, including Arthur Hunt, one of the founders, a true eccentric, and the monkeys, despite being vicious little toe-rags, were fabulous. I'd like to go back one day and see how the little fellas are doing.

If you want to know more about the foundation and how you can volunteer then check out the VMF website :)

RIP Arthur, no one wore a tie quite like you did, you're sorely missed xx

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