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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. I was carrying only my camera, 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 towards the bench when one of the monkeys dropped out of a branch ahead of me and to my left. The balance of the troop was to my right. As I passed the monkey on my left, I looked down at him and smiled. That's when everything changed.

The monkey smiled back. ( I later learned smiling or showing your teeth is a sign of aggression in monkey lingo.) 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. When he got close, his mouth would open wide as he tried to bite me.

I began to dance a jig that if filmed would have won America's Got Talent or more likely World’s Funniest Videos while I screamed a girl scream I didn't know I had.

My scream got the attention of the man 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 attacker’s attention and he too went for the food stopping his attack.

I still today pay a price for that event. The price I pay is a newfound 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.

The lesson learned that day is to never smile at monkeys. Never! Not even the cute babies.

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