I’ll Be a Monkey’s Uncle

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Researchers have recently discovered that chimpanzees belong to the family of man, or, depending on how you look at the possible tax advantages, man belongs to the family of chimp. In fact, 99.4 per cent of the most crucial bits of DNA in chimp and human genes are identical.

This new data will not surprise anyone whose first experiences with chimps was watching them spin plates on the Ed Sullivan show, or entertain the crowd by pulling down the clown’s pants at the circus. We grew up believing that chimps are just like people, only funnier.

But are they any funnier than Texas politicians? Recently 58 Democratic lawmakers brought the Lone Star legislature to a standstill by skipping town and hiding out in Oklahoma. They did this to avoid a vote on a last-minute redistricting bill that would have cut Congressional districts in Texas up worse than a broken windowpane, and given control of the state delegation to Tom DeLay led ultra-conservatives. Bellicose Republicans, suddenly lacking a necessary quorum of 100 members to finish ramming through their right-wing agenda, freaked out. First Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to find and arrest the runaway Democrats. But, when they were unable to discover their whereabouts, Republicans apparently lied to the Department of Homeland Security by telling them that the airplane of former Texas Speaker Pete Laney had crashed. Was foul play or Al-Queda mentioned? We won’t ever know because all records concerning the Texas Republicans’ requests have been most unfortunately destroyed.

At any rate, Homeland Security tracked Laney’s plane to a runway in Ardmore, Oklahoma, 30 miles north of the Texas line, where the Democrats were finally found, hiding out at the Holiday Inn, and having legislative committee sessions at Denny’s Restaurant. The Republicans attempted to “bring ’em back alive” by sending Texas State Troopers to Ardmore. “They’re legislative terrorists and their leaving today is a weapon of mass obstruction, blocking hundreds of pieces of legislation,” Republican Rep. Dan Branch said. While Texas House rules allow for the arrest of members who intentionally thwart a quorum, the troopers had no legal authority to arrest the runaway monkeys, because they were outside the state. So Congressman Tom DeLay and Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick tried to arrange for federal authorities to arrest the Democrats.

The remaining House Republicans locked themselves in the House chamber in Austin, along with four straggling Democrats who Republicans needed to guard to keep from fleeing the state. They idled away the hours by plastering milk cartons with the faces of missing Democrats.

Compare this behavior with that of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee. Chimps are natural political creatures and have been observed forming alliances, using subterfuge and launching breakaway parties, though it is unclear whether their third party candidates have been any more successful than Ralph Nader or Ross Perot. Like many politicians, chimps use violence to get their way when they can, and sex to get their way when they cannot. Like humans, chimps are preoccupied with gaining and maintaining status within their group hierarchies. They threaten, beg, and bribe fellow chimps to join them in alliances, but their dominance lasts only as long as they can maintain these social connections (or come through on their promises of more ripe bananas.)

According to the Jane Goodall website, “when angry, chimpanzees may stand upright, swagger, and wave their arms – all with bristling hair and often while screaming or with lips bunched in ferocious scowls.” Check out the sound bites of some of our political leaders on cable news for comparable human behavior. “Male chimpanzees proclaim their dominance with spectacular charging displays during which they slap their hands, stamp with their feet, drag branches as they run, or hurl rocks. In doing so, they make themselves look as big and dangerous as they possibly can, and indeed may eventually intimidate a higher-ranking individual without having to fight.” Our political leaders do the same thing, but then send in the army (or the Texas Rangers) to do their fighting.

Recently, a frightening new view of chimpanzees has become prevalent among experts. As one scientist said after extensive contact with wild chimpanzees, “I came to share the new view of male chimpanzees as defenders of a group territory, a gang committed to the ethnic purity of their own set.” This new view comes as the result of repeated observations of gangs of wild male chimpanzees raiding neighboring chimps’ territories in search of vulnerable enemies to attack and kill. Out of four thousand mammals and ten million or more other animal species this “pre-emptive” attack behavior is known only among chimpanzees and humans.

Could chimps really become evil marauding invaders? I’m sorry, I just wasn’t raised to believe that. My attitude coincides with the description of chimpanzees from my 1972 World Book Encyclopedia: “Chimpanzees are curious and excitable and they enjoy playing. They make excellent performers in animal shows, motion pictures, and TV shows because they are intelligent and they are good imitators.” The recently discovered gangland behavior couldn’t possibly be a genetic inheritance. Instead, I think it must have been learned. And there is only one other species (or sub-species) that they could have learned it from.

But I prefer not to dwell on that. Instead I’d rather tell a funny monkey story, the kind we all know and love. A zoo in Valencia, Spain, has been experimenting with allowing chimpanzees to watch television in order to educate and entertain them. The carefully selected images show activities of other animals, and especially other chimps. On the first day of the experiment the chimps got to watch Disney’s The Lion King, and later a National Geographic documentary about their wild cousins in Africa.

Zoo director Ignacio Docavo is convinced that TV programs can teach the chimps a lot and may even improve the sex life of the animals by showing films of other chimps mating. However there’s no need to worry that inappropriate material will be viewed by impressionable youth: the X-rated sex films will only be shown to father Coco and mother Mirinda. The TV will be switched off when their children Cispito, Kate and Pascualito are watching.

The chimps initially reacted to the TV by starting to lick and caress it. Next they began searching behind the set, to see how the animals were getting inside. Finally Cispito decided to climb on top of the TV, where she proceeded to relieve herself.

Oh, aren’t those monkeys a barrel of fun!

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