Nolan Ryan knows all about (snow) monkey business

Posted Sunday, Jul. 01, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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How you can help

To find out the many ways you can help the South Texas snow monkeys, visit www.bornfreeusa.org/sanctuary. On the left side of the page, click on "You Can Help." Choose from "adopt" your own primate, "Make It Your Day," or "Go Nuts! Go

Bananas!"

The Primate Sanctuary is a division of Born Free USA. Its mission is to provide nonhuman primates a place where they can live as free as they can be, with as little human interference as possible. The 186-acre sanctuary is currently home to almost 600 monkeys of various breeds, many of whom were rescued from abusive or exploitative situations.

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DILLEY -- Once the dust stirred up by the truck tires settles in the compound, just about the only thing still moving in the heat is a beautiful seal-point Siamese cat, languidly padding out to welcome me to the Born Free Primate Sanctuary, located some 90 miles south of San Antonio in the heart of the desolate South Texas brush country. I'm not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved. This isn't the way it was when Nolan Ryan, representing the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, arrived here back in the late '90s. The repercussions of Ryan's visit, which led to a 2008 Ryan radio interview that Ticket personality Craig Miller, co-host with George Dunham of The Musers morning show, has called "the funniest moment in Ticket history," have eventually led us to tonight, and one of the most unusual promotions in Major League Baseball history: Chicken Express Snow Monkey Night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

The first 10,000 kids 13-and-under entering the gates at the ballpark tonight will be handed a stuffed snow monkey. Because of their unusual nature and the story that goes with them, they are expected to be one of the most coveted giveaway items in Rangers history.

It is the culmination of a remarkably convoluted story that is equal parts hilarious, tragic and heartwarming.

The chuckles emanate from the Ryan interview in February 2008, when the Hall of Famer, in his famous Texas drawl, related the story of his visit nine years earlier to what was then known as the Animal Protection Institute Primate Sanctuary.

"They delegated me as the snow monkey ambassador," Ryan says in the interview (which can still be found on the Internet here). "I had to go down and meet with the snow monkey people.

"So we drive out on this ranch and [in] the trees, there's thousands of [monkeys], and they see this truck come up, and the lady who is the head of the snow monkey....

"We drive up there and it's kind of like on one of these things you see in Africa; they're all over the car and the truck, you know. And she says, 'Well, let's get out,' and I'm like, 'I'm not gettin' out.'

"She says, 'They're all right.' So I reluctantly got out, and when I got out, one of them jumped off the top of the truck on my shoulder. I didn't know what to do. I was like petrified wood."

Ryan goes on to talk about how his hostess, Lou Griffin, the primatologist at the compound six miles south of Dilley, gave the monkeys Hershey's Kisses. The monkeys would carefully unwrap the chocolate, but before they could eat it, one of the alpha males or females would rush over, knock them down and take the candy themselves.

"It was the craziest thing ever," says Ryan, who also noted that part of the solution to the problem was putting the monkeys on "birth control."

There's no question that the interview is funny, made even more so as Miller and the other Ticket personalities howl with laughter in the background. Co-host Gordon Keith has used the snow monkey story as the basis for several of his fake-Nolan Ryan bits.

The Ryan story still draws chuckles from Born Free Sanctuary Director Tim Ajax, too, as he showed me around the compound last week.

"From Nolan's perspective, suddenly one of your first acts is to come down here and deal with this crazy lady and snow monkeys," Ajax said. "We have a sense of humor about it, too.

"He was characterizing what he saw in his own words, but there were never thousands of monkeys here. Still, it probably seemed like it."

Snow monkeys and South Texas

Ajax can relate because he had a similar experience the first time he visited the compound after a background of dealing with caged primates, survivors of the exotic pet trade or research facilities, that had become so used to humans that they could be very aggressive.

"So it was pretty intimidating for me to get out of the truck and be in the middle of monkeys I'm used to having attack me," he said.

Griffin, sometimes called the "Jane Goodall of Texas," had appealed to the TP&W for help.

Some of the monkeys, nervous because their troop leader had been killed by a bobcat, were escaping the property onto neighboring ranches.

On the last day of the 1995-96 hunting season, after the TP&W had mistakenly ruled that feral monkeys, as an "exotic unprotected species," could be hunted (a decision that has since been rescinded), three of the troop -- Missy, Lilly and Meggy, two of them nursing mothers -- were shot and killed and a fourth, Jason, had one of his arms blown off by hunters. The bodies were left where they fell. The monkeys had been munching on corn at a deer feeder just a few feet from their own fence line.

The tragedy was an offshoot of the oxymoronic question of how "snow monkeys" and "South Texas" came together in the first place.

Ironically, it started in 1972, the same year the Rangers immigrated to Arlington from Washington, when a troop of about 150 snow monkeys -- also known as Japanese macaques -- wore out its welcome after migrating to the suburbs of Kyoto, Japan. They were originally bound for an island off the coast of Georgia, but that arrangement fell through at the last minute. After stops in Hawaii and Seattle, they wound up headed for a South Texas ranch near Laredo instead, where a well-to-do rancher, who planned on selling the offspring to offset expenses, had agreed to build a compound for them.

"These monkeys lived in the northern-most latitude of any monkeys in the world," Ajax said. "They were forest and mountain monkeys. Now they're going to 106-degree temperatures on average during the summer, in a very arid area."

Surprisingly, the monkeys adapted amazingly well. The heat was hard on them and some were lost to predators, especially solitary "ambush predators" like bobcats and cougars. But they learned to forage, and the widespread South Texas mesquite trees proved to be particularly hardy as a food source for the monkeys. In fact, when a rare ice and snow storm hit the sanctuary a couple of years ago, the once-mountain monkeys were miserable.

Two more moves later, the monkeys settled on their 186-acre home near Dilley. After the three female monkeys were killed by hunters and Jason was mutilated, animal-rights activists and animal lovers rallied to help. A huge fundraising concert in San Antonio by Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton helped secure funds for their current home and for the electrified fence enclosures that keep them safe.

Ajax said conflicts between the monkeys inside the enclosures -- the main one covers 56 acres -- will occasionally provoke one or two to brave the mostly psychological barrier of the electric fence, but they generally quickly return. When one does wander off onto neighboring ranches, they're rounded back up, much like the cattle that occasionally escape onto the Born Free property.

There were probably about 600 monkeys of various species on the property when Ryan made his visit and there are about 537 living there today.

But there's a huge difference. Only about a dozen are "trustees," as Ajax calls them, free to roam about the compound. Some were clearly visible, but they kept their distance as we walked around the main area, where Ryan once had a snow monkey leap onto his shoulder.

"When that thing jumped on my shoulders and head, it wasn't funny," the Rangers co-owner and president told me last week. "I just stood there, thinking, 'I really don't want this thing on me,' but I sucked it up and didn't do anything.

"When we drove up and stopped, these things were crawling all over the truck because they were so excited to see [Lou Griffin]. I was thinking, 'Why would we want to get out?'"

Gone are the days when the monkeys clamored for treats, like Hershey's Kisses.

"Monkeys don't know what they're supposed to take and what they shouldn't, so we've discouraged that," Ajax said, making me glad I didn't stop and buy a bag of Kisses on the way down, as I'd thought about doing. "We limit any personal interaction and we don't play cuddly with them. Because of that, the monkeys don't come up rummaging through our pockets anymore."

Cute but wild

Born Free has undertaken a sterilization project for the male monkeys in the sanctuary, aiming for zero population growth, and the population has been on the decline for the last six years. They'll still take new arrivals, mostly private pets or research animals, under extreme circumstances, but as Ajax says, "The inn is basically full."

"There are enough monkeys in captivity," Ajax said. "They are here and we're here to take care of them. We want to focus on these guys who have no place to go and were in a bad situation through no fault of their own."

If Ajax could deliver one message to the public, it is this: Do not buy a monkey as a pet, no matter how cute, or cuddly, or clingy they may be. They are wild animals. It will not work. He sees the results around him every day.

"They are incredibly expensive, not only with the initial purchase, but the cost of taking care of a monkey," Ajax said. "Take away the fact that that a monkey is going to suffer tremendously by not having another monkey around, by not having social contacts, by not growing up with their natal group; it's probably at least 10 times more expensive to have a monkey as a pet than it is a dog you get from a shelter.

"It's a complex situation. The babies are incredibly needy. In the pet trade, they're taken away at birth, almost, then they cling to their human mom or dad, but there's no developmental process, like they would learn from other monkeys. They become increasingly frustrated and become aggressive. They lunge at you and learn that you're afraid and now they've reached alpha status. Now you have a dangerous individual in your household."

At Born Free, the monkeys are not pets. They are individuals who comprise troops, and they depend and rely on each other, protecting the group from predators, grooming each other, etc.

"We want to respect them for what they are, monkeys," Ajax said. "As monkeys, they can be extremely dangerous. They can be extremely loving. They can be petty. They can exhibit many of the same general characteristics as humans.

"They wake up in bad moods sometimes. We just don't try to change them and manipulate them so that we can make them like we want them to be. We want them to go find another monkey friend and have their own monkey life."

It can take several years to acclimate a former "pet" monkey, which has had no contact with other monkeys, to the point where he or she can be assimilated into the Born Free monkey community.

That's been the case with Khy, a 4-year-old male snow monkey. Khy came to Born Free in 2009 and has had to spend more than two years in his own specially built small enclosure because of his pent-up energy and aggressive behavior. Soon, though, Khy will be released into the sanctuary's big 56-acre enclosure. That's good, because my family has "adopted" Khy through the sanctuary's adoption program.

The $1 a day we provide will help pay for the up to 20,000 pounds of produce the monkeys need for a nutritional monkey diet each week.

Unintentionally, perhaps, the Rangers and their unusual promotion -- the brainchild of Chuck Morgan, the Rangers' executive vice president for Ballpark entertainment and productions -- will help raise awareness of the Texas snow monkeys. That can only help.

Ryan's visit to the sanctuary almost 15 years ago and his subsequent hilarious interview on The Ticket have brought us to Snow Monkey Night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

Listen carefully. We may be able to hear the monkeys applauding all the way down in South Texas, where they know better than anyone that monkey business is serious business.

Jim Reeves is a former Star-Telegram sports columnist. You can reach him at revo30@yahoo.com.

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