A couple of weeks back I had the chance to visit a place so cool that to call it a zoo would be to do it a disservice. It is a nature park, one that just so happens to have over 30 species of primates. One that was started by a photographer and owner of two tamarins, 40 years ago, who hit upon the revolutionary idea of letting his growing brood of monkeys run free with no cages or restraints to inhibit them from socializing, either with each other or with their human admirers. One that now boasts one of the most successful breeding programs in the world.
This magical place is the Apenheul, from the Dutch words for 'monkey' and 'safe haven', and is located in the otherwise unremarkable town of Apeldoorn. I had heard of it years earlier but was persuaded to finally make the almost 2 hour journey by some billboards scattered throughout Amsterdam announcing the arrival of Europe's only proboscis monkeys, some of the funniest looking creatures imaginable and oddly enough, what appeared to me one of the park's rare missteps, but more on that later.
Shortly after entering the park, and receiving a map and feeding schedule, you come upon the first 'exhibit', an uncountable number of squirrel monkeys and it is immediately clear how ingenious the concept is. A series of rope bridges and platforms allow the monkeys to freely traverse the area high above the heads of the visitors, and many were doing just this.
Others preferred to mix and mingle amongst the delighted humans. They seemed most enamored of small kids and particularly their strollers, I suspect because of the fact that human offspring tend to be hungry little slobs and the chances of finding discarded snacks in pockets and crevices of said conveyances runs high. But it wasn't all scavenging, there was what seemed to be genuine curiosity going on, as well. At one point, I sat on a wall to review some photos I had taken. Minutes later, I had a monkey sitting on my lap, watching me quizzically. I tried to explain to him that I had bought a new photography book and was trying to play with different aperture settings, but all curiosity has its limit and he soon took off. I did not. I lingered there for well over an hour before looking at my map (and watch) and realizing that I could easy spend the entire day there but would end up missing a lot of park- and monkeys.
Before I left the squirrel monkey area, I approached one of many caretakers and asked a question I could not figure out an answer for. Next up was the howler monkey area, but I wanted to know, since there were no cages or fences to speak of, what kept the squirrel monkeys from paying the howler monkeys or eventually the fine citizens of Apeldoorn a visit. She pointed out that we were on an island. It was the water and an eye towards keeping nicely trimmed tree tops that kept the monkeys local. Brilliant! This freedom of movement allows them to form strong social groups and live much as they would in the wild, but with the added bonus of those daily feeding times.
I was curious how they would handle the issue with the larger and potentially more aggressive primates. I soon learned via the bonobo island. Here it was the humans that were moated off, leaving these close cousins of the chimpanzees large islands with plenty of space to roam and play.
The next interactive area, always announced by a preponderance of "Stop eating and put your food away, now!" signs, was the lemur area. I wandered through, read the informative displays and spotted maybe 3-4 lemurs tops. It was cool because, you know, they're lemurs. But it felt I was being short-changed some over-caffeinated little monkeys, there should have been more. And then there were more. Lots more. I have no clue where they came out of but while I had my back turned, a lemur flash mob had overtaken a small grassy area. They hung out for awhile, posed for some pics until someone must have given the signal and they all cut a path through the crowd and disappeared back into the woods.
Of all the shows and feedings offered, I attended only one, the gorilla's. It was entirely in Dutch, so I have no clue what was said but did get to watch a large, gorgeous family of mountain gorillas interact for 45 minutes. Due to their unique approach, the Apenheul has on the world's leading gorilla breeding programs, with five babies born this year alone, and is the first to have the babies reared by their natural mothers. Apparently nursing is a learned behavior in gorillas, so most zoo moms have no clue how to care for their young who are quickly handed over to zookeepers, but since the Apenheul's gorillas live in natural families, the mamas learn from watching the older females.
At one point during the presentation, I couldn't help but notice that the proud and handsome silverback gorilla was very concentratedly taking a shit into his own hand. This was followed by another unmistakeable observation. He was putting hand to mouth and contently munching on the surely still warm turd. He did this again. And again. I have no idea if the zookeeper acknowledged this to his audience of Dutch schoolchildren, but this moment will always stand out as the time when I most wished I understood the language.
Next up, was the newest arrival, the three highly-promoted proboscis monkeys. Whether due to lack of (hopefully pending) habitat, or as I overhead some guests say, high sensitivity to cold, they were enclosed in a pair of cement rooms with a lame tree doing a poor job of simulating a natural environment. The rest of the park is too well-done and their animals too healthy and well-adjusted for me to think that this is an oversight or negligence on their part. I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming there was a good reason for the crap conditions and some plan in place to remedy the situation.
As if to prove the point, the orangutan exhibit was simply amazing. A grouping of islands, separated from visitors, but connected to each other via intricate rope swings and bridges, it was a oranga-Disney created with their happiness and well-being in mind. The signs explained that to keep them from getting bored, the ropes are changed around often and their food hidden throughout the islands to keep them mentally sharp. Watching them romp and play, there was no question that it was working.
Recreating the rocky, desert-like conditions of Gibraltar was the Barbary monkey exhibit. One interesting tidbit there was the fact that in order to prevent a population explosion, the females are kept on birth control. Every year, a few are taken off the pill, in alternating order but the dominant female is always allowed to procreate. The reason for this: if they don't let her, she will simply pull a Raising Arizona and steal someone else's baby.
Credit must be given to the Dutch people for the success of this zoo. The children tend to actually heed the many signs prohibiting visitors from touching or feeding the monkeys. And if the slow kid in class goes ahead and provokes some poor primate, resulting in a well-deserved bite, there in not a court in the Netherlands that would entertain the lawsuit. I shudder to think what would happen if someone attempted to open a similar park in the US.
After six hours in the park, I still had a good bit to cover and a quickly approaching closing time, so my time with the gibbons, spider monkeys and wooly monkeys was not a bit rushed, which is a shame because all three of those are some darned entertaining monkeys.
Still, it is impossible to complain after having a chance to spend the day cavorting with my second favorite animals. Second. You hear that leopards? I'm heading your way. Don't let me down. (Note to Spike and Zooey: after shih-poo's of course, you secret-keeping furballs!)