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Letter From America: Simian Retribution

Ronnie Bray recalls the defensive act of a chimpanzee - and the lesson it taught him.

Immature people use taunts and other despicable methods to injure the weak especially when they feel confidant that their victims are not able to defend themselves or mount effective counter attacks.

Most humans successfully navigate from the selfishness that marks an early stage of human development during childhood and having discovered the essentials about satisfactory social living never again resort to such meanness as adults.

Being part of a working and satisfactory social structure teaches us how to behave towards others so that our common social experiences are satisfactory to the extent that none are shunned and degraded and made to dwell in the dark corners of unhappiness, made afraid to walk in the sun as do their better treated associates.

That there are some such is volubly affirmed on the grey pages of their novels and poetry and explains much of the sober prose that records their cheerless existences.

Equally tragic is the state of those that have insufficient condescension to the non-human animal kingdom, for they are the cruel hearted that cause suffering to helpless animals that have no power to make complaint and are at the mercy of the unmerciful.

And then there are those that while not malignant suffer from lack of insight and understanding about the sentient creatures that share our planet, for which humanity has a shared stewardship and, thereby, the responsibility to treat them well. The ignorance and lack of sensitivity of this class can lead them to treat animals unkindly even though they are otherwise sensible and moral beings. I witnessed a prime example of this kind of behaviour on a visit to Knaresborough Zoo many years ago.

Primates are fascinating in being acrobatic and amusing. The Chimpanzee House at Knaresborough had six or seven adults in a large enclosure on the main thoroughfare. The lively creatures were busy swinging from tyres, bouncing off the bars, and acting out for visitors that tossed food to them and delighted in energetic performances that increased their rewards.

It was evident that they had learned how to milk a crowd, and were doing it with the consummate ease of polished professionals.

A small group of oriental visitors approached the area and was immediately taken with the cavorting of the engaging troupe. That was when a pre-visit course in Chimpanzee 101 would have proved useful.

They were so amused at the antics of the performers that they began to grin and laugh out loud, finally throwing back their heads in full abandon as the muses of whimsy and gaiety gripped them and delivered them into the guise of an attacking horde threatening the safety of the band of apes.

Not being familiar with the genus they did not know but were about to learn that displaying the teeth was an act of aggression, and the Chimps took it for that. Feeling threatened a large male dropped from his high tree branch, scooped up a goodly handful of ape pooh, threw it with unerring aim into the face of an aggressor, and in less than a second was back in his tree.

Although I am far from expert in interpreting simian faces I determined that he looked more than a little self-satisfied with the result of his missile attack on the hapless student and considered he knew he had come off conqueror in the exchange.

It would be hard to argue with him because the splatter of sticky stuff dripping on the face and shirt of the leading laugher brought about immediate cessation of jollity from the visiting party.

Cameras dropped to hang limply on their leather straps. A shocked silence was followed by an almost imperceptible and universally recognisable sound of disgust. Then a tactical withdrawal en masse took the victim out of range and removed the possibility of his companions being targeted in the event of a second foray by the ape-avenger should he feel the need to press his advantage.

But the aped-crusader was so effective in his first assault that a second dose was not required. I gave the victor a quiet round of applause for his intelligent action in guaranteeing the security of his band. Magnanimously he turned to acknowledge my salute, smiled, and winked at me before returning to his on-guard posture. He looked every inch a champion. I thanked him for differentiating between me and those he believed were mocking him.

Since then I have made it a policy to avoid smiling broadly or displaying too much dentition when in the distinguished company of monkeys and apes in the belief that no one suffers if we adopt the customs and manners of diplomacy in all our exchanges with all creatures great and small, whether they are human or otherwise.

2010 Ronnie Bray




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