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Lessons I Learned From a Monkey
By Karen Lee Stevens
It’s all Captain Kangaroo’s fault. Because of the round-faced, mustachioed man who, every morning, donned a cap and jacket with oversized pockets for his popular television show, I have a one-inch scar in the crook of my right elbow.
Let me explain.
Bob Keeshan (a.k.a. Captain Kangaroo), the grandfatherly host of the longest-running children’s television show of all time (1955-1984), often shared the spotlight with a wide assortment of guests—both two- and four-legged. I cracked up at Mr. Green Jeans and the mischievous Mr. Moose, but I really went bananas over one particularly hairy TV personality: a baby monkey who paraded across the stage in pink frilly dresses, denim overalls, and diapers.
A baby squirrel monkey
Watching that little gal as she wrapped her long arms around the Captain’s neck and snuggled close, I began having grand visions of cuddling with my very own chimp. I’d dress her in cute clothes and carry her around like a baby. I hadn’t quite worked out that whole diaper duty part in my head, but that was a small detail in the scheme of things, right? I would soon learn that I had bigger things to worry about.
Growing up, my father indulged my insatiable love of animals by bringing home every kind of creature imaginable: cats, chickens, dogs, fish, hamsters, parakeets and the occasional chinchilla graced our yard and our home throughout my childhood. I think I even had a pet snail at one time, but then I ate him (give me a break, I was only 2!).
And then there was Pancha. The little spider monkey had fur the color of milk chocolate and eyes rimmed with black fur that made her look like she had two big ol’ shiners.
The first time I saw Pancha, she was playing in her “family’s” backyard, trailing a long, thick chain behind her. The family had decided to sell their pet and my dad and I were more than happy to take her off their hands, much to my mom’s chagrin.
Things went well at first. Pancha appeared quite tame and she enjoyed sitting in my lap as she slowly peeled a banana and ate it. Still, she was tethered to that chain and there she sat, day after long day, in our avocado tree.
One fateful day, I decided that it was time to show off my new pet, so I gathered up her chain and set out for a walk in the neighborhood. We couldn’t have taken more than 10 steps when Pancha let out a primordial shriek, whirled around, and bit me. Hard.
The poor animal was probably as terrified as I was. Blood was streaming down my arm and spilling onto the sidewalk, where it commingled with my tears. Neighbors poked their heads out of their houses to see what all the commotion was about. My dad ran out, scooped us both up, and raced back home. I think he was frightened too.
Once Pancha settled down and my mom had bandaged my arm, my parents made a call to Animal Control. It wasn’t long before a big white truck arrived to whisk away my furry friend. The officials whispered something about “quarantine.”
As Pancha sat hunched in the cold, metal cage, our eyes met—the primate and the preschooler—and in that moment, I realized what a mistake it had been to force Pancha into being a pet. Oh sure, we played with her and gave her food and treats, but that couldn’t begin to make up for what she had lost. This wasn’t her real home, after all; we weren’t her real family. That had all been taken away from her when she was snatched from the South American jungle as an infant and smuggled into the United States.
To this day, I get pangs of guilt about abandoning Pancha the way we did. I like to believe she was returned to her native land, where she spent her days swinging from trees with her quadrupedal kin and foraging for food, but I know I’m kidding myself. More than likely, she ended up in a zoo or animal research laboratory, or perhaps she was humanely euthanized. I will never know for sure.
The scar on my arm has slowly faded over the years, but my memories of the little monkey who used to grasp my tiny hands in her black leathery paws are still vivid and will remain with me always. And the lesson I learned from her will never disappear: she taught me that humans should never monkey around with wild animals.
Karen Lee Stevens is the founder of All For Animals.
For more information, see American Veterinary Medical Association Testifies Against Keeping Primates as Pets, A Call for Ban on Primates as Pets, Become a Chimpanzee Guardian.
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