One Hundred Screaming Monkeys

One Hundred Screaming Monkeys

Most mornings I started my run about an hour before the ferry arrived from the mainland. The game wardens and lab technicians undoubtedly thought I was a bit odd. Who in his right mind would run in the jungle heat for exercise? Of all the professors, grad students, and undergraduates like me conducting research on Barro Colorado Island I was the only runner. To the Panamanians I was simply “El Negro Gringo Loco”.

I arrived in Panama a few weeks earlier. I quickly came to appreciate the Latin propensity for moderate expenditures of energy. Less than 45 minutes outside the confines of the climate controlled atmosphere of a pressurized airplane I walked from baggage claim into the 100 percent humidity of Panama City. It was like suddenly being under water. The air was so thick with moisture it felt like a heavy cloak around my shoulders. Under the oppressive weight of the air around me and the glaring heat of the noonday sun, moving as slowly as possible seemed the wisest course of action. Even my breathing was labored. With each wheezing gaps, moisture in the air condensed in my lungs and turned to liquid. It felt as if I might actually drown standing there at the cab stand. As I struggled to catch my breath I leaned heavily against a poster of the sovereign dictator Manuel Noriega, which read “Welcome to Panama.” The year was 1988.

Perhaps I have my African heritage to thank but I became used to climate after a few weeks. Most of the locals, in fact, assumed that I was Panamanian. But it didn’t take long for me to out myself. I spoke a broken dialect of Spanish previously used only to order beer and locate bathrooms while on spring break in Mexico. My running routine didn’t help matters much as the other brown skinned people around me were smart enough to keep their heart rates well below 80 beats per minute.
On BCI a graduate student, two other undergraduates, and I were charged with the task of studying the island’s local population of howler monkeys as well as a few other primate species. Although much of our work required us to trek several miles each day through dense forest, it just wasn’t enough to maintain the level of fitness I had acquired while running on average forty miles a week back home at UC Berkeley.

My run began at the student dormitory where I shared a small room the size of a prison cell with a family of bats that roosted in the corner ceiling. I wound my way through the laboratory compound and past the main dinning hall. Although the forest paths that led into the jungle were extensive, they were much too thick to run along comfortably. Heavy branches and low hanging vines frequently crossed the trail. Other hazards included spider webs so strong that one actually knocked me down as I tried to run through it. It was like something out of Daffy Duck cartoon.

There was only one person on the island with strong feelings one way or the other regarding my daily run. My professor was a tenured UC Berkeley instructor of southern extraction and a pension for being particularly hard on her students. After many decades in remote jungles studying primates my professor believed quite adamantly that one should devote oneself entirely to one’s studies. I suspect she felt my running was a frivolous distraction and a waste of energy. Her beliefs were not unlike many of the great female primatologists of the 20th century like Biruté Mary Galdikas, Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey.

While it wasn’t required reading in any of my anthropology courses at Cal almost everyone in primate behavior had read “Gorillas in the Mist”. Especially after the unfortunate and suspicious death of Fossey in 1985, the topic of jungle research was in vogue. It was alleged by Rwandan authorities that was Fossy was hacked to death and beheaded by one of her students with a machete. Many of us who had also read “Woman in the Mists” by Farley Mowat recounting the circumstances of Fossy’s death, believed that she was actually killed by Gorilla poachers who objected to her efforts to turn Mt. Kigali into a game preserve. Although we all believed the student to be innocent of Fossy’s murder, those of us who chased howler monkeys through the jungles of Panama, under the tyrannical rule of an equally domineering instructor suspected that even though he didn’t kill her, he probably at least thought about it.

Studies in primate behavior are every bit as boring as they sound. Except to those who enjoy a child’s curiosity for why things work the way they do, the tedium of observational research is not for everyone. It has long been a tenant of anthropology that one can learn a great deal about human behavior by following the movements of our non-human primate relatives. Enter the howler monkey. We had already devoted the first several weeks of our survey to documenting the behavior of individuals within many different family groups across a home range the size of a large city park. We were actually duplicating research that had already been done. So we didn’t expect to learn anything new, just deepening the pool of information in order to further substantiate firmly established research models. This is just the type work for undergraduates to do, mindless, tedious, very import, but impossible to screw up. Or so I thought.

On the evening before our third seven-day survey of the course, I sat beneath a large fig tree where a family of howler monkeys had settled down for the night. The group included one large adult male, three adult females, two infants, and a male juvenile. The leader of this small troop was the biggest howler monkey I had seen. He had the bulk and apparent weight of a medium sized dog and singlehandedly confirmed the howler monkey’s distinction as having the largest testicles in proportion to their body size of any other primate species. I mean they were huge! With their characteristic white scrotum his balls dangled beneath him as he sat on a thick branch giving the illusion that the tree in fact bore ripe fruit the color and size of large goose eggs. I imagined they were like the bright yellow/orange globes that grew in the tropical forests I remember from a childhood visit to the island of Kauai, Hawaii. In my field notes I designated him as DM-1. Which stood for dominant male number one. I called him Mangos.

The dense canopy cast shadows of twilight on the forest floor for many long moments as night fell and the evening howler chorus began. Every night at dusk the mature males of each family expanded their oversized throat muscles and howled the end of the day like a shop foreman sounding the factory whistle at quitting time. Directly above me I heard a low rumbling. I looked up to see Mangos warming up like a baritone waiting in the wings for his cue. To my left in the distance I heard the tentative half-hearted howl of another male, perhaps only just having reached full maturity. His song at first rang out smooth and clear. Then it faltered, stumbled, and finally cracked like a sophomore choirboy just out of puberty. In response, with the confidence of a man of advanced years who gets laid regularly, Mangos’ howl erupted from his throat with a force that tore through the evening like cannon fire. And so it continued for the next ten minutes, from one end of the island to another, call and response, each adult male marking his territory with a ferocious howl that proclaimed, “I am monkey! Hear me roar!” In the resounding chorus of voices all around me I chuckled to myself, catching a glimpse of Mangos over my shoulder as I made my way back to lab compound, his great white testicles waggling with each howl, winking back the last rays of the failing evening light.

I was up at 4:30 AM the following morning, my sleep rhythm timed perfectly with the family of bats returning to their high corner of my room after a night’s dining on mosquitoes. I packed a lunch of two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an apple, a bottle of water, and a Snickers bar. During the week of surveying the howler monkeys I had to forgo my morning run opting instead for a brisk 3/4 mile trek through the jungle by flashlight. I followed a trail of florescent orange flagging tape I had marked the evening before. Fortunately, monkeys never travel at night. Mangos and his family were still in the tree where I had left them. The sun rose above the canopy as the morning howler chorus began, time for work.

The survey would span a twelve-hour day from 6AM to 6PM. Every five minutes I took a reading of what each member of Mangos’ family was doing. Each day of the survey I recorded twelve entries per hour for a total of one hundred and forty four entries. The information I collected was as mundane as anything you might observe watching a family of humans in a city park. 6:05 AM: DM-1: Sitting, Adult Female (AF)-1 grooming, AF-2, AF-2 groomed AF-1, AF-3 nursing Infant (IX)-1, IX-1 nursed AF-3, IX-2 playing Juvenile(JV) -1, JV-1 playing IX-2. The only real difference is that in observing patrons of your local park you’ll seldom record something like, DM-1 copulating AF-1, AF-1 copulated DM-1. But you get the idea.

The behavioral snapshot only took a few seconds to record and in between I sat quietly reading a novel, The Thin Man by Dashel Hammit. Very seldom did anything exciting or of major importance happen. Mango’s family would scratch, eat, fight, play, displace one another from a preferred sitting position or travel short distances. Their behavioral repertoire was really quite limited. If they ate something I’d try to identify what it was. Aside from that there was very little heavy lifting involved. All the work required was patience. On only one occasion was I stuck for a behavioral reference when one of the infants discovered that by hanging from his prehensile tail he could swing beneath Mangos and punch his dangling testicles like a pair of boxer’s speed bags. I wrote in my notes: IX-2/DM-1 playing . DM-1 played

So it went hour after hour, five minutes at a time day after day, until the third day. Mangos’ family had traveled very little from the tree where I had discovered them. The giant fig tree was full of ripe fruit and big succulent leaves. There was plenty of food so they weren’t motivated to go anywhere.
Then suddenly it happened. As quickly as if someone had flipped a switch the incessant sounds of jungle insects and birds just stopped. There was absolute silence. I wasn’t alarmed at first. Every time it rained this same thing happened. I was just about to pull on my nylon poncho when I realized that this time the sudden silence was not preceded by a gradual loss of sunlight as a massive cloud passed over the jungle canopy. I didn’t hear the sounds of heavy raindrops slamming against broad leaves in the treetops overhead. Nor did I hear howler monkeys in the distance bellowing in complaint of a sudden dosing of water as the rain fell, rolling over the jungle like the shadow of a passing blimp at a 49ers game. Something was coming, coming right at me with the speed and ferocity of a raging storm. Mangos sensed it too and started to howl.

That’s when I saw them. Screaming white-faced Capuchin monkeys. There must have been a hundred of them, running full speed toward Mangos’ fig tree. It was an invasion, a full-scale military assault with one purpose, regimen change! A revival species with strength in numbers was there to liberate the fig tree from Mangos’ benevolent dictatorship. I imagined that at that moment an anxious Capuchin populous listened breathlessly as their enthusiastic leader, promising a quick and decisive victory, proclaimed the being of operation Tropical Storm! Meanwhile a band of Capuchin pacifists demonstrated outside the capitol waving placards that read “No blood for figs!”

Not known for their fighting ability the howler monkeys hooted and screamed at the oncoming hoard, shaking the branches of tree in a futile show of defiance. As the lead element of the advancing Capuchin forces landed on the most distant branches of the giant fig tree, the family of howler monkeys defecated all at once, probably out of sheer terror, possibly to lighten their load for their impending exodus from the tree. They literally had the shit scared out of them. But some Capuchin spin meister would undoubtedly present this act as proof of the howlers’ possession of and willingness to use biological weapons of mass destruction. As they advanced on the howler family’s position, the subtitled translation of the Capuchins’ screams likely read “Our cause is just!” They gave chase as the howler monkeys ran for their lives.

I suddenly felt like a reporter embedded with the Iraqi army. So I ran too. But their flight through the jungle was much easier than mine. As Mangos and the others scurried from one branch to the next, they bounded from one tree to another. They scurried over limbs that bridged between the trunks on the ground. Meanwhile, I scrambled and stumbled along the jungle floor tripping over every exposed root and vine as we fled. The jungle was like a solid wall of mixed vegetables with barely enough room to squeeze through. Clawing through with my bear hands I ran as fast as I could trying to keep track of each member of the family overhead, all the while cuing off of Mangos’ progress ahead of me. His massive testicles bounced along behind him as if joined to his groin with rubber bands.

After a quarter mile or so the Capuchins broke off the chase and headed back to fig to reap their spoils. But Mangos and his family just kept running, and running, and running. I almost lost them a few times, but I wasn’t about to give up the chase, even as a spider web with the tensile strength of dental floss caught me at the neck and dropped me right on my ass.They finally stopped more than two hours later. There they were, the whole family settled into a new tree. Not as grand as the one they had just evacuated, but a nice big tree all the same full of figs. There I stood beneath, panting, dripping with sweat, hopelessly lost in the jungle.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Howler monkeys don’t run at a dead sprint for over two hours. This was completely unprecedented in any of the literature I had read to date. I had witnessed an as yet unrecorded primate phenomenon. In my excitement I imagined that this was like discovering DNA or a fully articulated Homo-Habilus skull with an intact lower jaw! With two hours left in the day’s survey I filled in my notes from the last two hours as I continued my observations of the present behavior. It wasn’t hard. I just indicated 24 entries with each subject’s designation followed by the same notation: running! Once that was completed I set out to discover where the hell I was.
Taking out a map of the island secured in a zip-lock plastic bag I pinpointed my last known location. I took a compass barring from the direction I had just come from and made a rough estimate of where the nearest trail was. I was almost four miles from the lab compound. As night fell and the monkeys settled down for the night I plotted a course home and marked a return trail with florescent orange flagging tape. Excited with the days events I quickly made my way through the jungle in total darkness to the sounds of the evening howler chorus. I was going to be famous. Not like rock-star famous, more like Indiana Jones famous, at least famous enough to secure a cozy spot in a graduate program on track for a PhD and a career in Anthropology. This was going to be bigger than the swimming Macaques of Japan. I envision my name prominently sited in the scholarly text of a science journal or maybe even in National Geographic with my picture captioned “James of the Jungle, the running man of Panama”!

As darkness fell over the compound I made it back to my dorm room to see the bat family scurried out the hole in my screened window for their nightly bug hunt. I showered, changed, and made it into the chow line just as the cook was about to stop serving for the night. Having never taken so long to return for the field, the other students wondered where I’d been. So I told them the whole story. They sat starring at me over their rice pudding in wide-eyed amazement. “They actually ran for two hours?” asked one student. “That’s right,” I said,” and I never once lost them.” We laughed together over my story, but suddenly I heard someone say my name from the next table.

My professor had a knack for making me hate the sound of my own name. Only a debutant from Alabama could say the name James with two syllables. “Ja-mes,” she said. “Why don’t you just stop telling lies and admit that’s exactly what you did. You lost them!” she said as she rose with her dinning tray. “And when you couldn’t find them” she drawled on, “you brought back this fantastic story about running monkeys. Are you sure they weren’t flying monkeys? Shoot, that would be just as believable. I’ve studied howlers for almost 20 years and in all that time I ain’t never once seen a family of that sizes, with infants no less, cover more than a hundred yards in one day. And you say they ran three miles in two hours! I sincerely hope you do find your monkeys. I suggest you look in that fig tree you probably fell asleep under.” She slid her plastic tray into the kitchen for the dishwashers. “A hundred screaming monkeys, huh!” she scoffed as she stomped through the doors of the dinning hall.

OK. There probably weren’t a hundred Capuchins. Maybe it was more like twenty… or ten. But its not like I was going to count them. We were being overrun! Without saying a word to my colleagues who sensed my anger and embarrassment, I skulked back to my room and went to straight to bed. So much for my tenure track, I’d be lucky now to pass this course.

Even earlier than usual the next morning I awoke and left my room before the bat family returned from their hunt. I packed my regular lunch, turned my flashlight on, and marched at a speedy clip into the jungle, following my orange flagging, looking for Mangos. He and his family were exactly where I had left him, exactly where I marked on the map I had left pinned to my professor’s door should she decide to check up on me. In fact, I dared her to come find me. I imagine the thump tack was a blood soaked knife, a challenge to ritual combat.

The survey began that day, much as it had in days past except for the day before. Nothing exceptional to report so I read my novel between behavior snapshots. And then it happened again. The bird and insect noise suddenly stopped. And there was silence. Something was coming. I made ready to start running again. To this day, I wish I had. The rustling of feet, the parting of a tangle of vines like a curtain, there she was, my professor. I was already standing as she approached. Her face was flushed bright red, perhaps with exertion from the long trek from the lab complex, more likely with anger for having been proved wrong. She looked up to see Mangos with his family, the infants playing a game of tag.

“Well” she said, “looks like you didn’t lose them after all. But that doesn’t change things much. You came into that dinning hall last night cocky as you please like you’d done something special. Well let me tell you something, James. You ain’t nothing special. This is science, not football! You want to be a star? You find yourself another line of work and leave science to the scientists! Put some of the energy you keep burning up running every morning into your schooling and you might make something of yourself!” And with that she turned on her heel and disappeared into the forest.
It was like being punched in the stomach. I doubled over swatting low to ground hugging my knees as I rocked back and forth. I was sobbing. “Make something of myself?” I thought. Like what? Something like her? an overweight, self-absorbed college professor with a mean streak a yard wide and a mile long? A petty little statistician with, so little vision that he fails to see beauty and magic in a unique natural phenomenon?

I sat there and envisioned my life along that tenure track I so desperately wanted to pursue. I imagined other confrontations like this one, my dreams squashed under the power of someone so regimented by rules and regulations they have forgotten to joy and thrill of exploration or the beauty of discovery, adventure. I may not be special, but I witnessed something that was. That’s all I really cared about. She was right. I am no scientist. And just like that, I wasn’t. And would never be again.

Looking up through the tears that filled my eyes I mouthed the words almost with out sound. “Run Mangos” I said, “let’s run.” The monkey just sat there, a low rumbling in his throat. As darkness fell, in the distance, the evening howler chorus began.