In 1959 my military father was posted to Bangkok, Thailand bringing along his wife and seven curious children. We were soon housed in a large, walled compound that was meant to keep the burglars out and more than likely my four brothers in. Not to worry, as there was much to explore within the half-acre space made up of yard, walls, fence and roofs to climb and leap from. A veranda wrapped around one side to the back of the house where a rectangular pond of water separated the viewer from a tall stand of pine trees and beyond that the wet lands of rural Bangkok.
With the Monsoon rains came the deadly Bandit Krait snakes weaving through the flooded yard as if they had waited all year for this opportunity. Not content to watch from the window, my brother Mick would instigate a challenge to tight walk the fence crisscrossing the yard and hope that none of us fell to the snakes below. One morning, as we left for school, a cobra lay in the driveway, its mouth stuffed with a big, fat toad. The back of the cobra’s head held the design of an eye as if watching us standing five steps above on the porch. The cobra was between the car, and us so my mother let us observe this rather intense biology experience before the gardener carried the distracted cobra away to be killed.
One morning we heard a commotion out in the tall pines at the back of the house. Stepping onto the veranda we were in time to see a gibbon monkey swinging from tree to tree. There soon followed a request from the front gate for some men to enter to capture the monkey that had escaped from a nearby compound. And thus we were introduced to the wild animal zoo that lay across the rural wetlands behind our house. My father invited the men to try their luck, but when they would climb one tree and almost reach the gibbon it would leap out and grab a branch on the neighboring tree. After this went on for a while, much to the delight of all us kids watching from the veranda, my father stepped in to have a go. As the men from the zoo made their way down one tree my father began to talk to the gibbon, who responded by slowly moving towards my fathers outstretched arms. Just then one of the men came running over brandishing a machete and the gibbon ran right back up the tree. This went on most of the day until a net was called for and the poor monkey was captured.
What this little adventure brought to us was a personal invitation to visit the holding zoo and see the animals. On our first visit my father who made it very clear we were not to touch anything and no putting hands into cages accompanied us. No problem with that, Pops, we intoned. Approaching the tall gates to the zoo’s compound we could hear the sound of dogs snarling and barking in a not-very-welcoming manner. A small door in the gate opened and a smiling Thai gentleman invited us into the compound. Well then, we could see to the left a long wall of cages with leaping and snarling dogs trying to get to us. Even my father hesitated and seeing this the Thai spoke one word and the dogs fell silent. He then led us towards other cages filled with monkeys, orangutans, and gibbons. One cage held the fierce baboon male who stood against the cage bars and locked his eyes to mine. His thick mane of hair and elongated muzzle framed a mouth of canine teeth, which he suddenly displayed accompanied by a loud, threatening sound. He reached out between the bars in an attempt to grab me and frightened by his wild aggression I quickly jumped away.
From then on we would race to the zoo after school and sometimes they would let us in and sometimes we would ride the elephants they used to clear land outside the compound. One day an invitation arrived at the house inviting the family to view the baby elephant that had been born the day before. As we approached the compound we could see the dogs were out of their pens and leaping at the gate with such force that it was bending towards us looking to collapse. We heard someone yell a command and the dogs dropped to the pavement. As we waited outside we could hear the pen gates shut before the small door opened for us to enter; and there in the center of the half circle that housed the monkey cages, stood the mother elephant with her precious baby. Our fear of the dogs fell away as we quietly move around her, forming a circle with our bodies. It was an amazing sight and so taken with the sweetness of that little elephant I stepped backwards for a better look.
And that’s when the baboon reached out from the cage, grabbed hold of my ponytail and attempted to pull me into the cage. Surprised? Enough to yell loud enough to bring my brothers yelling and waving their fists. But what it finally took was for one of the handlers to rattle the cage with a metal bar before my new friend would let me go. I was pulled away and the baby elephant was forgotten in the excitement to move me from the cage; but I knew that baboon; had seen him watching me on previous visits; had seen his sharp teeth as he acted out his anger. Forever after when my brothers wanted to scare me, they would imitate the face and movement of the baboon and chase me around the house. It gave an expanded meaning to the term “an unforgettable experience.”
This wasn’t a zoo, I later learned, but a holding space between capture in the wild and fancy zoos in other parts of the world. When we returned to the states I would come to understand this more clearly seeing John Wayne in the movie Hatari. Sitting in the dark theatre watching his bluff and bravado as he captured rhinoceros and lions, suddenly made me sit up and remember the small compound in Bangkok. This was how they would capture the wild and free with wire noose, medicated dart guns and nets. Why is it humans must always enslave others? I wondered as a young girl, and then reading Jane Goodall’s interview for Care2 I was reminded of my experience, “The voice of the natural world would be, “Could you please give us space and leave us alone to get along with our own lives and our own ways, because we actually know much better how to do it then when you start interfering.”
Enter now to win a trip for two to Los Angeles to meet Jane Goodall and go backstage at Jane Goodall Live at http://www.care2.com/jane