Monkey Business

The monkeys of Thailand are so easy to pet. That doesn't mean you should.


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I first met the monkey at a bar on New Year’s Eve, more or less. We spotted him, sitting atop a wooden bar, as my sister and I passed an open-air restaurant on Koh Chang island in Thailand. He was small and furry — clearly a baby — with a protruding brow, a slight faux-hawk, a round tummy, and little human-like hands.


I’d come to Thailand as a monkey enthusiast, hoping to see them in the wild. This was my first monkey, and he was sitting on a bar in the middle of a restaurant, but I loved him anyway. I pulled my sister over. “Let’s see the monkey,” I insisted. Stacy had been living in Bangkok for a year already and had seen many wild monkeys on excursions to places like Kanchanaburi and Koh Samet. This monkey was attached to a string. “That’s not right,” she said, shaking her head.

The man running the place picked up the little brown monkey and set him down on a table so we could get a closer look. The monkey was agitated, pulling at the string, and then trying to hide under a yellow cloth on the table. He kept covering himself with the cloth and then poking his head out to see if we were still there.

“It’s OK, monkey,” I said. I tried speaking to him in soothing tones and gingerly patted his back when he ducked under the cover. He was soft, with kitten fur.

“Let’s go,” said Stacy. We were on our way to a club with live music by the water. We speculated about where the monkey had come from. Earlier in the day, Stacy had seen a group of monkeys up in the telephone poles, doing high-wire acts on the power lines along the road leading to the beach. I’d read that Koh Chang was home to a large population of wild monkeys. But we could see evidence of the rapid over-development that was taking place there — new hotels and bungalow complexes, trash spilling from dumpsters and strewn along the road, the few remaining plots of coastal jungle land marked FOR SALE. The town where we were staying was known as Lonely Beach, but it was anything but lonely, with a huge complex called the Treehouse serving as a nexus of hippy tourists who left beer bottles floating in the ocean. I doubted the monkeys were thriving here as they once had.

“What do you think they’re feeding him?” I asked.

“Probably table scraps from the restaurant,” Stacy said.

“Oh, monkey,” I sighed.

The next day was January 1 and we went directly to the beach. It was best to get there early, before the hung-over crowds woke up. On our way, we saw another family of monkey adults and kids hanging out in the trees near the road and showing themselves on the power lines. “I wonder if they’re looking for their baby,” I said.

We spread our towels on the powdery white sand amidst palm trees shooting up into the sky and random coconuts strewn about. The beach was gorgeous in spite of the signs of over-tourism we noticed elsewhere. We were splashing in the water when suddenly we saw him again: the baby monkey.

He was headed down the beach with two long-haired white boys. I ran to catch up to them. “Can I see your monkey?” I called. The brown-haired boy turned around and mimicked unzipping his shorts. I ignored him.

The monkey was sitting on the shoulder of the blond-haired boy, chewing lightly on the top of his ear. “Where’d you get him?” I asked. They told me they’d met the monkey at a tattoo parlor, one of the places we’d passed offering “bamboo tattoos just like Angelina Jolie’s.” The tattoo artist said they could take him for a walk.

“We were drinking Red Bulls and vodka with this guy, and he was just like, ‘yeah, whatever, go ahead and take the monkey.’ But once we got down to the beach, people were yelling at us and saying we were poachers and stuff.”

Now the monkey was climbing down his arm and then swinging across to his bare chest. Again I noticed the little tuft of hair sticking up on top of the monkey’s head, as though his mom hadn’t gotten around to brushing his hair.

“Can I pet him?” I asked.

What was I thinking — that I’d liberate the monkey? Climb up the telephone poles and hand him over to his rightful family? Bring him back to my apartment in Boston and build him a jungle gym in the living room?

“Yeah, yeah, go ahead and hold him,” the blond boy said, nonchalant.

And here’s where I made my potentially fatal mistake: I reached out to pick up the monkey, cupping my right hand under his belly. And he bit me.

It was so fast that I barely saw it happen. He must have felt my palm on his vulnerable round tummy and chomped down on the nearest invading object — my index finger. I let out a yelp, unable to contain it, and pulled my hand back.

“Bad monkey,” the boy said.

I tried to be casual, though my finger was pulsing with heat. I hid it behind my back, afraid that it might be running with blood.

“I don’t think he wanted to be picked up,” I said.

The monkey had reclaimed his position on the boy’s shoulder. They were heading back toward the tattoo parlor.

“Bye,” I said to the monkey and the boys, waving with my left hand.

When I had turned away and walked a few paces, I looked down to see that my finger was indeed running with blood.

“Put it in the water!” Stacy insisted. And here was where I made another error: Instead of running to the convenience store for some disinfectant, I put my hand in the ocean and waved it around. And then I got out, sat on my towel for a while holding a tissue to my throbbing finger, and waited to see the sunset.

Later, I would read that the first step for treating an animal bite should be an immediate scrubbing with soap and water to prevent any virus or bacteria present at the wound site from entering the bloodstream. At home, my aunt — who works as a landscaper and rescues stray cats in gardens — would tell me she keeps a bottle of Clorox to pour on bites and scratches. But for the time being, I was thinking more about my social misstep with the monkey. It was foolish, but I had wanted to hold him. And for some reason I’d half-expected he would jump into my arms. “He was scared,” my sister said. “Don’t forget he’s an animal.”

It wasn’t until the following morning, with the laceration on my finger still oozing, that I started looking around for information on how to treat a monkey bite. Our open-air bungalows — with no screens and non-flushing toilets — got remarkably speedy wireless Internet service. By then I’d bought an orange bottle of Bactine with Thai writing on the label and had been painting it regularly on my wound. But I had a vague sense I should perhaps be doing something else. So I sent my mom an e-mail. She works as a medical reference librarian at a hospital in New Jersey. Within the hour, I received five e-mails back.

The gist of them was this:

The monkeys that live on Koh Chang are macaque monkeys. Most macaque monkeys carry a disease called simian herpes virus B. According to the U.S. Center for Infectious Diseases, “Of primary concern when evaluating macaque bites are bacterial and B-virus infections. B-virus infection is highly prevalent (80 percent to 90 percent) in adult macaques and may cause a potentially fatal meningoencephalitis in humans.”

I had to Google the word “meningoencephalitis.” It means an infection and/or inflammation of the brain and the all-important membranes that surround the central nervous system. This results in “high rates of mortality and morbidity.”

My mom went on to say that the disease isn’t a very big deal for the monkeys, but only one human has actually survived virus B. Lots of researchers study macaques in science labs, and they have to be vaccinated against it.

And then, a litany of questions:

What did your monkey look like? Did it have any open sores? Did you take a picture of it? Can you tell for sure if it was a macaque?

I had taken a picture. I scrolled back through the photos on my digital camera and zoomed in for a better look at the monkey. It looked just as I remembered — definitely a macaque, healthy, clean, no sores, very cute. But who knew what could be lurking within?

I refrained from hyperventilating. I went to find my sister, who was lying in a hammock, drinking a mango shake. This was a bit casual, I thought.

“When we get back to Bangkok, we’ll go to the international hospital,” she said. “It’s very good.”

I spent the bus ride to Bangkok — plus the two hours when our bus was broken down at a rest stop — considering the possibilities for the (short) remainder of my life with virus B. “You need a massive dose of valacyclovir,” my mom had said. “Insist that they give it to you.” When it comes to medical issues, she doesn’t mess around. I wrote it down in my notebook: One gram of valacyclovir, an antiviral drug, three times a day for 14 days.

We’d intended to go to the hospital that very night, but now we were going to arrive in Bangkok too late. I wondered if those extra hours of waiting were going to be among my last.

The next morning, I sat in a treatment room at the international hospital, where most of the other American tourists were having affordable cosmetic surgery or gender reassignment. The doctor looked Chinese, with pale white skin that was nearly translucent and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses balanced at the end of his nose. “What seems to be the trouble today?” he asked me.

This would turn out to be his best line of English. My sister and I pantomimed the monkey bite.

“Rabies!” the doctor exclaimed. Oddly, it was one disease that hadn’t even occurred to me.

“Tetanus!” he said. Another.

“Virus B!” I told him. “Fatal in humans!”

He leafed through my notebook, where I’d written down the name of the antiviral drug, and gestured to the nurse — in a prim 1950s-style nurse’s uniform and white hat — who dialed the pharmacy.

As he prepared the needle for my first vaccination, the humor of the situation struck him.

“How many days ago you get bit?”

He counted backward and then burst out laughing.

“Not a very good New Year for you!” he shrieked, clearly enjoying himself.

The nurse covered her mouth.

At the pharmacy, a woman handed me a bill for “ta-welve thousand six hun-der-ed and eight baht.” My sister nearly fell down. It was over $400.

I could picture the doctor telling the story to his family at the end of day: stupid American pays hundreds of dollars in antiviral drugs for the privilege of being bitten by a monkey.

And to make matters worse, the commercial name for valacyclovir was Valtrex. I’d seen the commercials for this drug on TV at home, and I remembered the happy, clean-looking couple strolling hand-in-hand down the beach and the female voice-over that said, “Even with genital herpes, you can still have a healthy sex life.”

“You’ve got the Herp,” my sister said. To think, I hadn’t even kissed a boy. All I’d done was pet a monkey.

By the time I left Thailand, I had returned to the international hospital twice for rabies vaccines, but I still needed two doses back in the U.S. The first thing my American doctor said was, “Well, they didn’t exactly follow protocol.”

In the U.S., protocol was an injection of Rabies Immune Globulin directly to my finger, the site of the wound. “They would have injected as much as they could have, maybe 10 viles,” she said. “And the Immune Globulin is viscous so it goes in really slowly, with a huge needle.”

The closer the bite was to the brain, the sooner they would have wanted to give it. In other words, she said, if I’d been bitten on my face it would have been really urgent. Then, an American doctor would have used another big needle to give me an intra-muscular shot of rabies vaccine to the gluteus maximus.

The recommended Immune Globulin, however, is not widely available in developing countries like Thailand. And now that I was back in the U.S., she’d have to find out whether they could switch me from Rabipur (“We haven’t used that since the 1970s,” she snorted) to the American form of the vaccine for the final two doses. She would check with an infectious disease specialist and let me know. And so I left the office without the vaccine.

Back at home, I did a little research on rabies, just to see what I was up against. In Latin, the word means “madness, rage, fury.” The virus takes the shape of a bullet—fitting, given that there are only six known cases of surviving once symptoms show.

Some of the stories in the medical literature are straight out of a horror movie: a four year-old boy in Texas sleeps peacefully in his bedroom when a bat flies through an open window and bites him. No one knows it has happened until he starts showing symptoms of rabies, at which point it is too late to treat him. And then he drops dead, but not before writhing around and foaming at the mouth.

Tetanus is no picnic either. “We would have given you a DPT shot, too,” my doctor said. That’s diptheria, pertussis and tetanus, any one of which can knock you down swiftly and painfully. With Tetanus, the first sign is lockjaw. And then your body seizes up, all your muscles clenched. Doctors use the “spatula test” to find out if you’ve got it — which involves touching the back of your throat with a sterile, soft-tipped instrument.

At home that night, I resisted the urge to stick a spatula down my throat.

Meanwhile, I was learning a lot more about monkeys. They seemed to be popping up everywhere — cute little symbols of my own mortality. I learned that worshippers of the monkey god Hanuman in the Thai province of Lopburi hold an annual feast for the hundreds of wild monkeys that occupy the area. Chefs travel from Bangkok to prepare lavish fruit and vegetable dishes for the monkeys, and they set long tables with colorful displays of food, cans of Coca-Cola, and ice sculptures embedded with bananas. The monkeys feast and chatter and fight and throw food, and tourists snap their pictures, and then they retreat to the jungle to nap off the excess of the monkey banquet.

When my sister visited Lopburi a few months later, she reported seeing a monkey running down the street with a stolen kitten. That same day, Stacy stood stock-still in the middle of a temple as a monkey climbed up her leg and all the way to her ear to filch a dangly earring. This relatively benign monkey mischief — along with the stealing of wallets and biting of fingers — is excused and forgiven on the day of their feast.

Soon thereafter, though, I came across an article in The New York Times detailing an attack on the deputy mayor of New Delhi by a gang of wild rhesus monkeys. The man had fallen from his balcony during the assault and been killed. Suddenly, everyone was taking the monkey problem in New Delhi a lot more seriously.

And then I got a writing assignment to travel to the New Hampshire summer residence of Hans and Margret Rey, a German couple whose pet marmoset monkeys inspired their children’s books about a mischievous creature called Curious George. The Reys were so devoted to their monkeys that they brought them along on a trans-Atlantic voyage, for which Margret knitted them little sweaters. But none of the monkeys had survived the trip.

And when it comes to human-monkey interactions, that’s generally the case. For the global monkey population, human contact is almost always devastating. Even if my monkey bite had been fatal, the current tally would still amount to monkeys: one, humans: thousands.

Over the course of a few weeks, I received the last two injections in the rabies series, having confirmed that the American vaccine would not conflict with the Thai version, and finished off my expensive course of embarrassing antiviral pills. A year later, no sign of rabies, tetanus, or simian virus B has shown itself.

Now that the danger is past, it’s with a mixture of chagrin and a certain macabre delight that I tell the story of having been bitten by a monkey. And when I wonder what became of him, I like to think he ran away, returning to whatever jungle is left on Koh Chang, out of reach of girls like me. • 5 October 2009



Andrea Calabretta is a writer in Boston whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Literary Traveler, and other publications.