'Apes' own a piece of the Rock (of Gibraltar)
Wild ‘apes’ stole my snuggly! A macaque on Gibraltar snatches her toddler’s favorite toy and a woman finds out about Europe’s only wild primates.
'Baby' was pretty well-traveled for a stuffed giraffe. His matted fur, once yellow, was gray from hundreds of washes. His neck was floppy from being clutched tight in a tiny fist as he was dragged along on our journey. He was decorated with saffron-orangy splotches and streaks of faded purple, attesting to both the sampling of couscous in Morocco and wild mountain blackberries in Austria. His embroidered black eyes had seen a lot in a few short years. So had my 2-year-old son, Nakoa.Skip to next paragraph
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We prided ourselves on being prepared for any travel eventuality. But on our way to tour the Rock of Gibraltar, we discovered we hadn’t quite thought of everything.
Little-known residents of the famous mount awaited us, the tour operator explained: Europe’s only band of wild primates, the Barbary macaques. About 230 roam the upper Rock.
As we pulled up to the entrance to St. Michael’s Cave, we were warned that the macaques were “not shy.” Food items should be left behind. Nakoa grabbed “Baby” by its floppy neck, and we clambered out of our van. We all took a moment to stand and admire the distant view of Africa across the misty Mediterranean.
Then the unthinkable happened.
One of the large, wild macaques, seemingly oblivious to the camera-flashing crowd, darted over to Nakoa with one long hairy outstretched arm.
Together, we turned in shock and watched “Baby” disappear up the mountain in the arms of a wild “ape.”
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It turns out that Baby may have been an irresistible social prop. “I imagine a subdominant male saw your child as a monkey carrying a baby and wanted to have the baby in order to be able to gain a few points in the ladder of the hierarchy,” John Cortes explained to me later after I told him my story. He is the secretary-general of the organization that maintains the macaque feeding grounds. He immediately had an idea what the macaque was up to. “A subdominant male will be able to approach a dominant male provided it’s carrying a baby, whereas if it is not carrying a baby, it is going to be chased away. Holding the baby reduces the aggression towards that animal.”
Still, Nakoa was inconsolable.
I managed to calm him with a bright. fake smile. I pretended to read from a quickly folded scrap of blank paper: “A man who lives high upon the mountain found Baby on the Rock! He says he heard we were traveling, so he thought it would be better to mail Baby to Grandma. She can take care of Baby and send him back when we get to our next stop!”
I was already devising a plan. I frantically called my mother in the US and begged her to buy a replacement giraffe, beat it up until the fur frayed, remove half the stuffing, grind dirt into it, and perhaps run it over with the car, before washing it a dozen times with diluted bleach ... and then mail it to us at our next stop.
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Though the Barbary macaques are known to the local population as “apes,” their vestigial tails make them monkeys. They range from 15 to 30 inches long and weigh up to about 30 lbs. Their fur ranges from yellow-gray to gray-brown. Their faces are dark pink.
Macaca sylvanus was the earliest offshoot of the 5.5 million-year-old genus Macaca. Today’s macaque is the only living non-Asiatic representative of the genus. They were in southern Europe 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. “They were probably wiped out by the last ice age,” Dr. Cortes says, “but it is just possible they were found in Europe in some refuge in the extreme south. That’s what gives some of us the romantic feeling that perhaps ours are descended from those European survivors.”