Smiling at Monkeys


There was a time when I was completely comfortable getting down on the ground in front of a vervet monkey taking photos then following him or her to take more. I have several close photos to prove that there was a time I did not fear primates.


That all changed during a trip to Africa in 2007. I was staying at a fenced camp and walked mid-day from my hut to the perimeter of the camp to sit on a bench to read carrying only my camera - I go nowhere in Africa without it - a can of local beer and a book. Being that I was alone I remained aware even in a fenced camp. After all, if primates could use the trees to get in camp so could leopards in my opinion. And if the occasional impala can wander past the gate guard I imagine a lion could too.

 I looked ahead to see what was around and noticed a man on a bench eating lunch reading the paper. There was a bench to his left that was empty which is where I was headed when I noticed the troop of vervet monkeys playing in the low hanging branches of the trees between the bench and myself. I was strolling for the bench when one of the monkeys dropped out of a branch ahead and to my left. The balance of the troop to my right. As I passed the monkey on my left I looked down at him and smiled. That's when everything very suddenly changed.

The monkey smiled back - I later learned smiling or showing your teeth is a sign of aggression in monkey lingo - then he screeched a sound I shall not soon forget and came for me. I was wearing loose fitting khaki pants. He ran for me and reached out towards my ankles and attempted to grab my leg. If he got close his mouth would open wide. It was obvious he was trying to bite me. I began to dance a jig that if filmed would have won America's Got Talent or more likely Worlds Funniest Videos whileI screamed a girl scream I didn't know I had. (By the way I was also slinging beer on him to no avail.) The scream got the attention of the man eating lunch on the nearby bench who dropped his lunch and came running towards me. I ran for him as well and when we met I began to use him as a shield between me and the monkey who was still intent on getting to me until another monkey discovered the man had dropped food. Thank God that diverted my attackers attention and he too went for the food stopping his attack.

I still today pay a price though. The price I pay is a new found fear of primates. I have a hard time coming out of my hut or tent if primates are in the area. I stay in my car if monkeys are nearby waiting for the troop to move on before coming out. It's a learned behavior that I am making an effort to unlearn. Before this experience I was in their face with no issue on several occasions. One bad event can change everything. Can it be changed back?

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