Studying Rhesus Monkeys in Nepal

December 31st, 2010

I hate needles. So many vaccinations when one travels – it’s odd that I have always traveled so much – especially to Nepal for some volunteer work in 1978. I got vaccinations for cholera, yellow fever, typhoid, and a few others that escape me. Or I escaped.

I was in my second year at university and had decided that that summer I wanted to do something worthwhile and interesting. Travelling with a purpose and to some place I had never been.

As a kid, I had traveled almost every year to Europe some with my family, some with a group of kids.

There was no internet then so I searched high and low at the library and the visitor’s center, travel bureaus. In the back of a row of books, in a very small pamphlet, I found a group that did studies and projects all over the world.

They had two in exotic places that fit my schedule – one in Kenya; I think studying water delivery systems and one in Nepal…studying monkeys.

Next I knew, I was getting all sorts of vaccinations. You know I was keen because did I mention, I hate needles.

Even the day I was leaving, I got a gamma globulin shot in the hip – that was a new place – at the airport. Also a new place for vaccinations. And then off on a plane to Nepal stopping everywhere including Israel, Tehran, and another place I think. I wished I had stopped over in Tehran – this was 1978 – a few months before the hostage crisis and probably the last time I’ll get a chance to go there. I did go into the airport and bought a watch but didn’t stay. Maybe someone was watching over me. May have not been safe to stay.

After a couple of days it seemed, I arrived in Kathmandu airport, grabbed a taxi and went to the guesthouse. The taxi was a rickshaw with a bike. I negotiated a fee and off we went. After I left my luggage, the taxi driver – aka bicyclist – took me to the ancient, sacred temple pretty darn far out of town. That guy earned, I mean EARNED, his fee. He hauled me and my luggage and then just me forever.

It was a gloriously sunny day. The hills with myriads of varying shapes of rice terraces all green against a blue sky. Women in colorful dress planting rice faster than any machine I’ve ever seen. I got out and played charades – to see if I could try it. After about a minute of placing each strand just so, the woman grabbed the bunch from me and finished the whole field while I was still analyzing the placement. Not before she had a good-natured laugh.

The temple was on the hill. Yup and there were the monkeys. Mostly adolescent males enjoying their bachelor, bullying, carefree days.

I returned to the guest cottage.  We went to lunch at the local cool restaurant – a shack with some unidentifiable delicacies. I recognized a curd shake and the lead scientist’s brother recommended it – so I ordered one of those.  In fact, once you got used to the sour taste dulled by the sweet fruit, it was quite tasty. Nice and cool in the hot summer. It became my staple diet.

I was fascinated by procedures. You had to use bottled water to rinse your toothbrush. Now that doesn’t sound so difficult but you see, without pressure, which is hard when pouring from a water bottle, it’s hard to get a toothbrush clean. And one mustn’t be tempted to just run a little tap water over it. About 4 in our group did just that little bit, let the toothbrush dry, to use that evening….and they were very sick for a few days.

I would also hold my mouth together tightly in the shower. And you had to wear shower shoes. Who knows what coodies were lurking. But it could be nasty, killer stuff. We weren’t in Kansas any more.

The schedule was set up. Three shifts of four hours each at each of two places. Four would go to the forest where the monkeys hung out and four would go to the temple where they hung out.

I was on the forest team.  Our mission was to quietly observe the babies and what they ate.

It could be dangerous – a lot of rabies so you sure didn’t want to get bitten. If you did, you’d have to stay in Nepal an extra month (because you couldn’t get back to the Western world in time for the next shot) and get a rabies shot every day.

The needle was a mile long I was told. And if that wasn’t enough of a deterrent, they gave you the shot in your stomach. I’m not sure I would have signed up if they had told me this before.

So you weren’t allowed to smile at the monkeys – they saw this as a grimace and an affront to which they had to defend their honor and attack.

And no staring. No straight on looking. A direct look is a challenge to a monkey and again, they will have to defend their honor and attack. And keep your distance so as to seem benevolent.

The purpose of the study was this: Several countries had halted exporting Rhesus monkeys to the US because the mortality rate in shipping and in captivity in the US was high, especially among the babies. Rhesus monkeys were important to research as they were the closest physiologically to humans. One theory was that what the monkeys, especially the babies, were fed in captivity was the issue.

So. We were taking notes of each item each baby ate at what time. When we got to the forest, we divvied up the babies – we recognized the different mothers, and we each chose a different one to follow that day. At a distance. We wrote in our notebooks what they ate as specific as possible, when they ate it, how much, etc.

We had bicycles to bicycle the 25 miles to the forest. Those first few days….well I started looking for my rickshaw taxi….especially at 4 in the morning for the first shift.

About 10-12 days into this, I had been following a group of Moms with their babies in the trees at about 100 yards. The whole group was in the area – including the alpha male.

Suddenly one mother decided she had enough of my watching her baby. The mother started yelling at me, telling the mothers next to her she was unhappy with me.

I hadn’t been looking facing full front but now turned even more to the side and looked down, sure that would settle it.

It didn’t.

When I looked out of the corner of my eye, she was frowning at me and clearly just waiting for me to look. AHA! She started yelling again at me.

I quickly looked down (best non-aggressive posture), made sure I didn’t smile warmly at her (she would have seen it as a grimace and bold challenge) and didn’t move. Probably couldn’t have. There were monkeys all around me – didn’t want to startle any. And fleeing inspires pursuit.

She calmed a little. But not much. And she sure was grimacing. I don’t know how they can confuse a smile with a grimace. That grimace was nasty.  

Maybe it was her baby’s curiosity and attention towards me.

I wasn’t too worried – she’d see I was not confronting and if she moved on, she’d see I wasn’t following. I had already out of the corner of my eye switched to watching what another one ate.

But then….she seemed to get mad because I wouldn’t fight. She jumped down from her tree leaving her baby behind and raced towards me.  

Gulp. There was no escape route!

I held my breath, reminding myself to keep looking down and away, don’t move, hoping – sure? –  that these measures would help her energy dissipate.

It didn’t.  I starting wondering how much a small female monkey bite hurt (never even thinking it could be more than just a bite – I might have… I don’t know what…) and started calculating that I’d be staying longer, wondering if the needles would be clean, when I saw within my peripheral vision, the LARGE ALPHA male run towards her and me.

Oh God.

He swiped at the female with his front –paw, hand? And yelled at her.  Well, I don’t speak Rhesus, but it sounded like yelling. Chastised, she ran back to her perch still glowering at me.

Wow. Thanks, BIG Al, can I call you BIG Al? But I didn’t smile. And I kept looking down, non-confrontational.

Then the BIG ALPHA male came towards me.  

Oh God. Okay, happy to call you Sir. Or Bwana. Or whatever you like….Sir!

 I started mentally freaking out: How much does a BIG male monkey bite hurt? Is the rabies needle for that even bigger? I mentally braced for the worst. Now wWishing the little female monkey had won. Surely that bite wouldn’t be as bad?

The BIG ALPHA male came up to me, put his paw on my thigh – Yikes! Don’t smile! – looked up at me – uh oh! Don’t look him in the eye! – turned and calmly sauntered off.

Don’t smile.  Don’t look. Don’t smile. Don’t look. Don’t run…Don’t…uh…

And all was calm again. Except my heartbeat.

Amazing. I clearly was now not just a member of the troop, but an honored member. At least I felt relieved… I mean honored…I mean…Sir! Don’t smile.


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