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(photo credit: Miriam Bulwar David-Hay)
Looking for a place for the family to monkey around this Pessah? The Israel Monkey Park at Kfar Daniel in the Ben Shemen forest is putting on special activities for the Pessah holidays. The 50-dunam (some 12 acres) park, now in its 11th year, is home to some 250 monkeys from 20 species, who dwell in natural undergrowth enhanced by artificial pools and canals to resemble their natural habitats.
On a cool but sunny Saturday, the park is full of Israelis of all ages wandering around the well-marked paths, trying to match the monkeys and other primates they see to the ones in the brochures handed out at the entrance. Most of the animals can be watched from a short distance as they eat, groom themselves and leap around in comfortable cages or large enclosures.
"We have three aims here in the park - entertainment, education and conservation," says park manager Tamar Fredman.
In the free-range area that is the highlight of the park for many visitors, nimble little spider and squirrel monkeys scuttle along the branches directly overhead and next to visitors, sometimes darting down to grab a morsel from an outstretched hand. Most people obey the signs telling them not to feed or pet the animals, but some still hold out 'Bamba' puffed peanut snacks for the monkeys to snatch, and others try to tweak the animals' tails or to lure them into their arms. "The Israeli public is not easy," sighs Fredman. "They think that if they buy a ticket they have the right to do anything they want. We stop people when we see them, but there are always a few who do things they shouldn't."
Fredman, who is studying for her doctorate in primatology at St. Andrew's University in Scotland, began her career as a psychologist but then decided that monkey minds interested her more than human ones. When the monkey park opened in 1996 as a private initiative, she began running a monkey sanctuary on part of the land, aimed at caring for and rehabilitating sick, injured and traumatized animals. She took over as park manager in 2001, and since then has run both the sanctuary and the park.
The sanctuary, which is not open to the public, has rehabilitated some 220 animals over the past 10 years and currently has about 90 in its care. More than half the monkeys in the sanctuary were confiscated, while the rest were given up more-or-less voluntarily. Some monkeys were brought in after being used in laboratory experiments; others had been kept (illegally) as house pets by individuals; and others were given up by zoos which, for one reason or another, could no longer keep them.
People do not realize how cruel it is to keep a monkey as a household pet, says Fredman. Unlike dogs and cats, both of which thrive on human companionship, monkeys need other monkeys and those deprived of relationships with members of their own kind suffer severe damage. "Monkeys need to have a social environment and interaction with other monkeys," she emphasizes. "Cutting a baby monkey off from its mother and taking it home as a pet is just the start of the abuse. If you break a monkey's connection to other monkeys, it develops neurotic behavior, like biting itself, pulling its own hair out or rocking. Monkeys that have been raised without other monkeys are like human children isolated in institutions."
Only a few of the monkeys rehabilitated in the sanctuary were able to be released into the park, which contains established groups of monkeys with well-defined hierarchies and family groups. Some of the animals, while healed of their physical injuries, will have to remain in the sanctuary for the rest of their lives, while others have been released to Israeli and overseas zoos that can take care of them properly.
Working with a British wildlife conservation group two years ago, Fredman arranged for the release of 12 rehabilitated monkeys to an animal reserve in Zambia. And now, working with the same British group, she is currently planning the sanctuary's biggest release project yet: In the next few months, a charter airplane will take some 40 monkeys - half of them baboons and the other half green monkeys - to the African country of Malawi for release in a wildlife reserve there.
Malawi, of course, gained notoriety recently when celebrity singer Madonna adopted a young boy there amidst controversy. Fredman laughed at the irony of her sending animals there to have better lives. "I guess it's a better place for monkeys than for people," she says.
Getting 40 animals - especially the notoriously aggressive and strong baboons - to Africa will not be easy, but Fredman says that she has learned from her earlier experience. Each animal will travel in its own, specially built cage, and there will be a number of human handlers along for the entire journey. Negotiations are currently underway for a charter plane to get the primate passengers to their destination as quickly and smoothly as possible.
"We've already delayed the trip a few times because of technical difficulties," says Fredman. "I'm hoping now that it will take place by the end of April. I really want to help these African monkeys return home."
In the meantime, the monkey park is preparing for Pessah with a series of African-themed shows and activities planned. Among them will be a treasure hunt for the "Afrikoman" with prizes for winners.
As well as the monkey displays, the park contains an African-style village and a large children's play area with Tarzan's treehouse, the "Afrikef" giant Gymboree, animal petting corner, a climbing wall and other adventure equipment.
The park can be reached from Highways One or Six, and is open daily from 10 am. On weekdays it closes at 6 pm; on Fridays and holiday eves at 2 pm, and during Hol Hamoed Pessah at 4 pm. Entry is NIS 48 for every person over the age of two. Tel: 08-9285888 for further information.