Peace Corps Writers
Please do not feed the monkeys . . . Officer! (page 2)
Please do not feed the monkeys . . . Officer
page 1

Curious langur

     Monkeys seemed to be coming and going in every direction. They are lining the treetops, scrambling across the lawn to join their kin. A short time later they are frightened away by a group of long-tailed macaques.
     The dusky langurs, also called leaf monkeys, are easily recognizable by their cute little faces with white-ringed eyes and long tails and are best known for their death-defying leaps. So adorable, they look more like stuffed animals being tossed energetically by children between the tree limbs than living creatures. Normally this species are fairly difficult to observe by the layman because they are extremely shy. Hunted for meat and captured as pets, they face an uncertain future throughout the region. But at the Gardens they seem to proliferate unimpeded and even to flirt with the small crowd of onlookers, flying down from their branches when an offering of food is presented.
     Unfortunately, as fun as it may seem, feeding the monkeys is strictly forbidden in the Gardens. Next to a large “Please do not feed the monkeys” sign we watch one tourist and his child doing just that. Clearly, the Gardens have had tremendous problems keeping the visitors from feeding the monkeys and have begun a massive campaign including a new book, local media coverage, thousands of pamphlets and signs galore. That day a local paper quotes a Garden official saying; “We are in the process of drawing stringent rules to empower us to compound offenders on the spot.”
     The monkey feeding dilemma is expounded upon by a friendly retired English teacher and Georgetown native who begins chatting with me during a climb up the steep hill behind the Gardens on my way to the top of Penang Hill. He laments on the tourist practice of feeding the monkeys, explaining how it teaches the monkeys bad habits, like stealing bags, and sometimes mildly accosting visitors. More importantly, he emphasizes, are the dangers to the monkeys themselves. Over-population is one problem, but also dangerous is the overly-friendly relationship the monkeys develop with humans. Their innate fear of humans is obviously a bad instinct for them to lose considering the widespread exploitation of wildlife in countries around the world.

Climbing Panang Hill
If feeding the resident monkeys of the Gardens is not bad enough, feeding those that live in the wild is even worse, since there they have no safety zone away from poachers. If you choose to make the vigorous three hour trek up to the top of Penang Hill along one of the 20 nature trails, you will most likely have the opportunity to observe far more monkeys than in the Gardens, and this time in their more natural habitat.
     Once at the top, the fabulous panorama of the island below, and the cooling breeze that makes it about nine degrees cooler than at sea level, should be enough to keep you motivated to finish the steep climb. If not, there is always the option of taking the funicular up and descending the hill on foot instead.
     Halfway up the hill, where you can rest while drinking Chinese tea and munching on crackers with the locals for a small donation, is also where my chat with the friendly teacher takes place. He assures me the worst of the hill is over. Since his retirement he has made the climb daily and he laughs as he tells me he and his friends have nicknamed the first half of the hill “the killing fields.” As I’m doubled over and exhaustedly sucking my water bottle, he talks at length about the monkeys and about life as a Buddhist in a predominantly Muslim country. After an extended rest we part and I continue my assent to the top alone.
     The jungle around me is thick, but the sweltering heat is now accompanied by a cooling breeze. Suddenly I see another group of monkeys around the bend and in the middle of the road. Amazed that they should come so close to civilization out here in “the wild,” I approach cautiously, camera perched into position. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? Not a park official, as I’m now far beyond the park’s parameters, but an armed, uniformed police officer who has dismounted his motorcycle and stands with an armload of fruit, casually sectioning off small pieces and hand-feeding the large family of monkeys now encircling him. Ah, yes, I think to myself, the vigorous campaign to keep the visitors from feeding the monkeys looks like it could be a successful strategy, but it seems implementation might need to begin from the inside. As I pass I can’t resist repeating the message observed so often in the gardens below, but with a slight alteration: Please do not feed the monkeys . . . Officer.

Mishelle Shepard has been writing and teaching in a new location every year since her service ended. She is currently living in Girona, Spain and working on her first novel.
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