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"Snow Monkeys," by Clinton Crockett Peters

Humans are 99.4 percent chimpanzee. Genetically, we are as close to chimpanzees as horses are to donkeys. Switch a few alleles, cross over a few molecules on the circumambulatory ticker tapes of DNA, and we could donate blood, pour our hearts out into the creatures that swing from trees and thump their chests.

Macaques are only 93 percent chimpanzee, not quite the humanoid doppelgängers. They are naturally shyer than chimps but quickly learn mischievousness. Macaques are the primates you hear about stealing bananas off card tables in Bangkok, puncturing juice canisters for refined nectar in Bali, and, in one bizarre case of ironic justice, knocking from his balcony in India the very politician who was campaigning for their extermination.

Their hijinks and grunts sound vaguely human–which is why NASA used them in the Mercury space project–but if we could imagine them to be people, they would be a very specific breed of Homo sapiens. They are rugged enough to live in almost every climate on four continents, independent enough to walk upright and into the fortified home of their worst enemy, fiendish enough to get what they want when you try to take it away.

Macaques, I believe, are the Texans of the primate world. And this is probably why, though they are not native here, several hundred macaques have been moved, taken up residence, developed a taste for cactus, and become scorned and hated and hunted in the great misunderstood universe of the Lone Star.

*

Their story begins in central Japan, the land of acacia trees and vermillion maples, the thick buzz of cicadas and the rolling backs of ancient hills like a reflection, one behind the other, into the haze. Tropical storms disgorge salty mists offshore and blow in curtains of rain that leave behind perpetual dew and mud. This is the Japan you won’t hear about, the 70 percent of the country blanketed in mountains and forests. The vegetation is so lush that until 1948 a thirty-member macaque troop went undocumented near the outskirts of Kyoto, a million-member metropolis that happens to be Japan’s center for primatology.

But the mountains can get blizzardy in winter, and this is why nihonzaru are called snow monkeys by the English-speaking world. They are often photographed soaking in hot springs with a bed of powder around the geothermal pools and lining their lips frothily. Some tourists elect to swim in the hot springs, share a bath with a naked primate–an interesting example of what postmodern theorist Donna Haraway in her book When Species Meet calls “contact zones” of species mingling. “To be one,” Haraway writes, “is always to become with many.” To bathe with animals is to become childlike and an unclothed animal again.

Scientist Eiji Ohta discovered the Kyoto troop in 1948 while looking for tree frogs. Hiking off-trail in the foggy summer heat, Ohta was startled by an aggressive, guttural barking emanating from the brush. Knowing there were Asiatic black bear around, he recoiled and unsheathed a sickle-like knife common among Japanese woodsmen. As he backed away, he watched a furry, amorphous blob jump from the rustling bushes and scamper up a trunk. (Macaques are known in scientific parlance as semiterrestrial, not because they’re aquatic but because they spend so much time in trees.)

Ohta moved on, escaping into the undergrowth, his neck and face cascading with sweat. Moments later he looked up while toweling off to see a pair of yellow eyes darting from the shade. Ohta realized these were the macaques he’d heard about as a child. They’d held mythic status in his hometown, a story the boatmen would tell as they punted downriver. Monkey legends were common, Japan’s version of trickster foxes, sly coyotes, and rascally wolves. Primatologist Frans de Waal believes the presence of monkeys in its stories and its forests has given East Asia a better mirror to recognize ourselves as animals. He writes in The Ape and the Sushi Master, “Seeing primates makes it hard for us to deny that we are part of nature.”

Forgetting his fear, Ohta thought he might be able to catch a macaque, drag him and drug him or knock him unconscious with a stick. He took to awkwardly climbing the branches where the macaque sat stilly examining him. After Ohta struggled for thirty minutes, the macaque jumped from his branch to the understory of another tree and from there dropped to the ground and disappeared from sight.

“The figure of that monkey,” Ohta wrote later in a scientific paper, “filled me with a mysterious feeling of wonder.”

*

Ohta clued in his colleagues at Kyoto’s university, who began leaving out food, drawing the macaques to an open area. After several months the scientists lured the troop to a location for a safari-ranch-like monkey park, a convenient drive from the city and a promising way to pay for their research.

In postwar Japan, after the leveling of the country, many Japanese were looking for something to pride themselves on. The economy, of course, was the most promising arena , and many threw themselves into the labor machine. But nihonzaru, “Japan’s monkey,” indigenous and abundant, became a fixation. More than thirty wildlife monkey parks sprung up around the main island in the 1950s. Each researcher at the Kyoto park took to wearing a large white apron dyed in the center of the chest with a giant red dot, a simulacrum of the Japanese flag.

Gorging on the abundant feed, the troop mushroomed. By 1958 the birth rate had tripled, and the infant survivability rate went from 63 percent to an unprecedented 100 percent. Individual body size bloated. The scientists watched the macaques creep closer, until they grew accustomed not only to their food but also to their benefactors. They morphed from a ghost story told on the river into vegetable-stealing tangibility.

Around the mountain and at other parks, macaques began sneaking into gardens, decapitating cabbages, tearing down fences, pounding on roofs, scaring children. By the late sixties, national interest waned, and some humans took their revenge. The Kyoto troop lost three alpha male leaders in succession, all to human hunters.

Then the valley forest was cut down to make paper and room for postwar sprawl. A power struggle emerged, and the macaque troop split. The dominant monkeys held the mountain, while the losers descended into what was left of the valley. With little space to make their homes, the monkeys rooted in cellars, stole from farms, broke into and pissed on shrines.

One Kyoto professor, knowing the macaques would soon be exterminated, asked a visiting American colleague on chance, “Would you be so kind as to accept one of these groups as a gift?”

Lacking indigenous primates, the American thought having a stable troop within easy observation would be a boon to publishable understanding. He and other scientists began meeting to discuss immigration. They wanted their host site to be hilly and forested, as Kyoto is. The new home needed an enclosure to prevent escape. It needed to be relatively cool, because the “snow” monkeys cannot sweat. The primates needed to be within easy access of a major university for study, and to be outside local disturbances such as mining, agriculture, and drilling. An island off the coast of Georgia would do. Or Hawai’i.

After two years, with a Jurassic Park-like Macaque Island not forthcoming, the scientists’ talk turned practical. They found a wealthy rancher named Edward Dryden, who offered to house, feed, fence, and maintain the macaques for no charge at his ranch in Texas. Dryden’s bargain was that he would sell off the “excess” of the troop on the animal testing market. And so a few macaques would live confined in cages, try on makeup, swallow pharmaceuticals, or undergo deadening brain surgery while, in turn, a population would be provided for in their new home.

*

“Revolutionary” confinement, like the prison system of Pelican Bay, California, writes sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, is where inmates are kept isolated from contact. The revolutionary aspect is that there is no need, because of a system of doors and locks and windows, for prisoners to speak, touch, or interact with anyone at all.

“No wonder,” Bauman writes, “the victims mount a defense . . . prefer to reject their rejectors.”

Twenty years after their arrival at the Dryden ranch, the snow monkeys would move to the Born Free Primate Refuge, a monkey shelter that also rescues simians from test laboratories. Primates raised in confinement for science or domestication grow up biting themselves and sometimes attacking their owners. They go clinically insane. They become dangerous, as one fifty-five-year-old woman in Connecticut found out when a confined pet chimp named Travis, who belonged to her friend, escaped his cage and ate most of the woman’s face and hands.

Likewise, much of Texas’s population resists confinement. Those in political power resist what they see as invasive gun laws. They resist what they see as an invasion by Mexico. And resist a takeover strategy by the national government. Even today, a vocal minority of Texans believe the state is a sovereign nation. Yet their fellow citizens are Mexican American, are locked up on death row, are subject to bad health because of elected politicians. They are in a different jail, blamed, captured, bolted up for the their fellow Texans’ bidding, and they too resist. The two groups exist like a strand of cool flame, burning with resistance, reflected in a mirror.

*

Capturing the macaques in Kyoto began in February 1972. One hundred fifty-two were lured into cages with bait and then loaded onto a Japan Airlines cargo flight. One monkey died en route; another lost a toe.

They arrived in the blinding light of Laredo near the Mexican border. Released, they pattered around the bunkers of cottontails. Surrounding them were roadrunners, timber rattlesnakes, tarantulas, bobcats, armadillos, javelinas, and more than one hundred species of cactus. They were encircled by an electric fence ten thousand feet long and eight feet high. A few of the monkeys grabbed the wires and locked on, the volts pulsing through their fur, and attending researchers had to dislodge them.

Laredo is eight degrees closer to the equator than Kyoto. It has high temperatures regularly over a hundred. In their first summer, the macaques ate coyotillo berries, which contain a lethal neurotoxin that has no antidote. A few monkeys were dragged from their enclosure by bobcats and eaten. Some were bitten and killed by rattlesnakes. More than a few contracted screwworms. Dozens were devastated by “valley fever,” caused by inhaling fungus spores directly from the alkaline soil.

The macaques were surrounded by sand, predators, barbed wire, and an environment as hostile and unfamiliar as a desolate moon. Within the first two years of Texas living, half of the transplanted troop had died.

By the late seventies, after six years shaded under mesquite trees, toiling on bare soil, eking out a living in the Laredo sun, the snow monkeys of Texas adapted.

Scientists observing the troop found it easier to note what flora the monkeys didn’t try consuming. Cactus became a troop favorite, especially the succulent flower bulbs. The macaques took to climbing prickly pears, deftly clinging between the spines, ripping off new-grown pads, and eating them like potato chips.

Over the next two decades the troop’s numbers swelled to five hundred, then six. Generations of macaques were born on Texas soil. They became bilingual. The troop developed verbal calls and barks for creatures and foods found in the new world, like “rattlesnake” and “cactus,” that when recorded and played back home were nonsensical to the Old World cohort. The snow monkeys learned to speak the language of their new home.

However, despite their new abilities, the monkeys were “global vagabonds,” and, as Zygmunt Bauman writes, vagabonds pushed out of their homes by modernity “won’t stay in place for long, however strongly they wish to, since nowhere they stop are they likely to be welcome.”

*

When the rancher Edward Dryden died, his widow reportedly instructed the scientists: “Get these stinking monkeys off the property.” She didn’t like, apparently, what Donna Haraway calls “the risk of an intersecting gaze” of species to species, captor to captured. Confined creatures and people are often seen as “out there.” To have them “here” was too close.

Shuttling the monkeys around, the scientists pulled together funds and purchased land outside San Antonio. But twenty-three acres couldn’t contain them. The monkeys dug. They stole cabbages. They climbed mesquite branches and delicately lowered themselves onto private property. Macaque males were witnessed climbing the charged fences, even while being electrocuted.

They snuck. They ate up bait and crapped in deer blinds. They clambered on people’s houses. Chewed up porch swings. Killed a dog, allegedly. They broke into houses while people were gone. Scared cattle. Ate cooling pies. And laughed.

*

It is no mere cliché to say that Texans love to hunt. There are more guns here per capita than in any other state besides Alaska. The only large predator in Texas is the cougar. There are maybe five hundred in the state, but you can kill as many as you want at any time.

Soon after hearing complaints of the snow monkeys’ antics, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife declared the monkeys an “exotic unprotected species.” It was open season on macaques. Deer at least have a time in the year when they can’t be exterminated.

Hunters poured into San Antonio asking for monkey hunting permits, which were not needed and did not exist. The simians were like a weed that could be uprooted, an undocumented laborer who could be deported. Shipped to this country, they had adapted to the ecosystem, and now they could be shot.

Just before the scientists argued for the monkeys’ lives in Texas legislation, four monkeys were tricked with food into climbing outside an enclosure and were gunned down by a man or men holding shotguns. The monkeys were a family, two of the macaques lactating females. Their killers were variously linked to friends of friends (who some said were Danish) and were never found.

Texas media blared their demise in ink and over the airwaves. Maligned in life, in death the macaques became martyrs. Grandmothers decried the deed. Wayne Newton, on hearing the story, flew to San Antonio to sing a concert raising money for the troop. He cried when he broke from song to talk about the slaughtered.

The scientists successfully argued their case, and the Texas government ruled that the monkeys were not invasive but “livestock.” Cows, after all, cannot be tricked and shotgunned, although they are ultimately of foreign origin and will occasionally roam the countryside damaging cars and mailboxes. Under Texas law, Penal Code Sec. 9.42, a Texan is within his rights “using deadly force against another to protect land or tangible, movable property.”

Horses were once eradicated from North America, but it is now legal to open fire on a thief who wrangles an imported stallion. Pigs first came from China, as did chickens, yet they too can’t be shot. Similarly, you can’t, without payment, hunt one of the nearly two hundred species of exotic African or Asian game that live on safari ranches throughout Texas. These animals were brought over for zoos originally, and when the menageries went bankrupt, the animals were turned loose across the countryside. They trespassed, but landowners realized many fellow Americans would pay good money for a safari they could otherwise find only overseas.

So for the price of a new Audi, you can scope and snipe a Cape buffalo or saw the horns off a dead scimitar oryx, an animal that has gone extinct in its native home in the Sahara. You can milk a cow, break a mustang, fry a chicken, but if you shoot one, you can be shot or sent to jail.

The global elite’s wet dream, Zygmunt Bauman writes, is that one day all the poor of the world, all the vagabonds and huddled masses and undocumented, slip suddenly and silently into the good night. The world, he notes, is becoming a penal system, or, if you include animals, a safari ranch.

Seeing primates reminds Texans of who they are, a look across evolution, across the geothermal pools at fellow bathers, a look across borders. As Jacques Derrida said, “The animal looks at us, and we are naked before it.”

It is only when Texans own something, like the grandfatherly grins of old livestock, that they let it be something to them, that they can save it legally. But salvation is more than a term, it is about becoming one with ourselves.

*

After the macaque family was gunned down, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan espied a scurrying simian on his ranch in South Texas. Confused as anyone who didn’t know the monkeys’ story, he asked around. When Texas Parks and Wildlife learned that Ryan, the strikeout sultan, was interested, they designated him their Snow Monkey Ambassador. The monkeys were still a nuisance across the Hill Country, and Texas Parks thought that Ryan, one of the most famous Texans, could help with the monkey trouble.

In 2008 he appeared on a much-listened-to sports talk show, The Ticket. A taped conversation reveals Ryan retelling his first encounter at the refuge. Driving in among the mesquite and cactus, a bewildered Ryan heard a rattling on the car’s roof, and then on the hood. Soon the vehicle was carpeted with what he describes as thousands of monkeys, crying, squealing, jumping, and playing.

“It’s kind of like one of those things you see in Africa,” he said. “I reluctantly got out and . . . one of them jumped off the top of the truck onto my shoulder and was hanging on me. And I didn’t know what to do. I was like petrified wood.”

Eventually, with the aid of Hershey’s Kisses, Ryan won over the macaques. The chocolate, which since 1907 has won over children throughout the country, brought Ryan closer to the primate immigrants. Then scientists won over Ryan to the view that education was key, that Texans didn’t know why the monkeys were here, why they were forced out of their home, why they had to adapt and respond to the harsh life they found. And thus the Hall of Famer, a man with a world-record 5,714 strikeouts, looked up to by a generation of Little Leaguers, became the monkeys’ advocate.

The culmination of Ryan’s ambassadorship was a series of Rangers games in which the ball team gave away thousands of furry gray stuffed dolls with twinkling eyes to spread awareness. July 1, 2012, was the first official Nolan Ryan Snow Monkey Day at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The first ten thousand children aged thirteen and under got a free monkey. At break time during the game, fans were asked to hold their livestock high up into the afternoon light, as everyone in the stadium stopped what they were doing.

The ten thousand children held up their gifts, which from far away, if you didn’t argue with yourself, looked like infants gazing into the sun.

 


CLINTON CROCKETT PETERS is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, Columbia Journal, and the Society for Professional Journalists. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and a PhD in English/creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Oxford American, The Rumpus, Hotel Amerika, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Berry College.