This week I received a rather devastating news: Charlie the macaque has passed away. Although Charlie has been a catalyst of my life and many of my friends know him or of him, I feel I should recap the story for my readers.
In 2011, I travelled for a vacation to Koh Rong islands. While there, I found a one-month-old orphaned baby macaque: his troop, according to the locals, had been slaughtered for meat by the forest loggers and he was found clinging to another badly injured adolescent macaque, who died few days later from severe injuries. At that time, I was far removed from any wildlife or animal rescues; I was new to Cambodia, having arrived in the mid 2010. It was my first trip to the Cambodian islands and I knew nothing about macaques. But seeing the tiny helpless and very human-looking macaque, I was immediately moved and resolved to take care of him. My spur of the moment decision was further strengthened by the fact that as soon as I reached out to him, he clang on to my arm and would not let go. He slept on my shoulder and I bonded with him instantaneously.
My partner was not as eager as I was: having been raised in Africa, he was certainly more aware of primate behaviour, how much time and effort it takes to rear one to adulthood and how destructive they become once they are all grown up. So, in my effort to convince him to take Charlie in (as I named the little orphan), I asked the local resort owners about leaving Charlie there, but they all told me that they had no interest in caring for the tiny infant. So, after further convincing, Charlie travelled with us back to Phnom Penh.
My household staff was pretty shocked when I appeared from my short holidays with a baby macaque. At first, they were apprehensive, but once they saw how cute he was, how quickly he was bonding with all of us and our two cocker spaniel dogs, all agreed that Charlie could stay. I threw myself into a research about macaques and I quickly realised that as a wildlife, there was no way I should keep him.
The question of us being expatriates also became an issue: what would become of Charlie if we were to leave? There is no way we could take a wildlife animal with us back home to Canada. So, after a long search I found out about Wildlife Alliance and this is how my relationship with the wildlife agency began: they agreed to create a space for a macaque enclosure in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center.
I began a campaign to raise money for the enclosure for Charlie. In the process I learned a great deal about wildlife, why they never can become pets and the dangers associated with keeping wildlife in a household. So, after a lot of media coverage, and the big fundraising event I organised called ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, we raised enough money to be donated to WA for building an enclosure for Charlie and also other orphaned baby macaques they received and cared for. Charlie even appeared on the front page of Phnom Penh Post weekend edition, which made me very proud.
All these efforts to get Charlie to the right place took over eight months. By then, he was growing into a naughty intelligent little guy, who pretty much destroyed our home: we could not leave anything breakable left at home, we had to use plastic or metal bowls, and never mind the amount of mess he created everywhere he went.
Naturally, we didn’t believe in chaining or caging of any sorts. And being a clever and curious animal, Charlie got into every drawer and took everything to be examined and eventually broken. The more troublesome part in all this was that we were getting deeply attached to him and he was to us. He became highly humanised, loved human company and therefore, at the time when he was ready to be transferred to his enclosure he was completely unprepared for either moving to his new enclosure nor interested in socialising with other macaques. The transition was difficult for both Charlie and us, but eventually, in few months he was OK.
What broke my heart was that because he was raised with us, humans, for the first year of his life, Charlie was unlikely to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. You see, macaques are highly social creatures and need a troop of their own to survive and flourish. Usually, they learn the behaviours, hunting skills, hierarchies and wildlife survival skills from their mothers and other mates in the troop. Charlie had none of those skills; if released, he would be hanging around humans, creating the same chaos and destruction as he did in our home and as he grew older he would also become stronger and more assertive. So, since 2012 till last week Charlie lived in his enclosure. And he was destined to spend the rest of his life in it.
When he was a young macaque, he loved his keepers and welcomed human guests too. Each time we visited, he ran and hugged us, gave us grooming sessions and loved playing chasing games. As he matured however, his natural-borne instincts kicked in: when Charlie turned three years old, he was showing all the natural primate behaviours of young male adult: seeking dominance in his surroundings, wanting to be seen as an Alpha male: he bit the keepers, chased other macaques away, showed aggression towards humans and at one point, he had to be moved to another larger enclosure with a female macaque of his age with a similar story as Charlie, away from human visitors.
Lately, as we visited him, Charlie was almost unrecognisable: we saw Charlie and he of course saw us; but the dynamics between us changed. Charlie was not greeting us at all, but instead showed the signs of dominance and avoidance. He was not the friendly baby we raised, but a tough adult who knew his strength. And he yearned to be free.
Keepers told me that Charlie constantly tried to escape the enclosure. Even the most beautiful large enclosure, with enrichments like games and trees inside it was still a cage. A trap. A house arrest. Charlie wanted to climb the trees freely around his enclosure as he saw wild macaques passing by freely. He tried to escape several times during feeding and this week he succeeded. He bit a keeper and a guest, became highly aggressive as he ran up the trees. For few minutes, he was a free wild animal he was meant to be, but never could.
The team at the park had to act quickly. They knew that Charlie was a danger to humans, having no fear of them; he would bite if left outside the enclosure and having no troop of his own to belong to, he will hang around humans. The team darted him in order to get him back to the enclosure; but he kept running away and went higher up in the trees. And there was just no way for the team to keep up to catch him while he fell sedated on the ground. Sadly, the fall killed him instantly.
As I mourn over Charlie’s death, I also reflected on the many conversations I consistently have with people about wildlife. Even those more educated and worldly still have this misguided fantasy that there is no difference between domesticated animals and wildlife; that if you raise even the wildest of animals at home, they will become pets; and that all animals can be pets if “you raise them to be”.
I implore you all to learn from my story: the difference is huge. Please understand that you cannot take “wild” out of “wildlife” by a few months of human nurturing and you cannot “love” the wild out of the animal. I beg you to accept the obvious: thousands of years of evolution created the set of natural instincts, the genetically imprinted behaviors that are passed through generations and cannot be wiped away with few months of human “babysitting”; and no matter how good your intentions are, eventually we all have to face the reality that Nature in wildlife is much stronger that Nurture.
Even if you rescue the wildlife from distress, let them go to the specialists to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild where they do not just survive, but where they belong, where they live and enjoy their life to the fullest. Otherwise, the ignorance (or even worse, a willful ignorance) will lead to heartbreaks, suffering and death. Look at Charlie: even with my best of intentions, with all the things done right, I just did not do them right quick enough for Charlie to have a chance to be free. All I could do, is to ensure that Charlie lived safely for seven years, most of them without the freedom he was supposed to have.
I hope he was happy. I hope he knew he changed my life. I hope he forgave my ignorance. And I hope he knew that his life and his tragic death was not in vain: I promise to continue his legacy through the work that I do, so other wild animals can live a happy, free life in the wild, where they certainly belong.
Goodbye, my boy. We will meet again someday, but this time, both of us free and equal.
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