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Tales from the monkey park - Vallée des Singes

Tales from the monkey park - Vallée des Singes

The Vallée des Singes is one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions. But what does it take to keep 350 monkeys happy? We spent a day with head keeper Jean-Pascal Guéry to find out...

Monkeys at Vallee des Singes
It’s 8am and at the Vallée des Singes the bonobos are being served their breakfast of fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s a fairly relaxed affair – unlike their close relatives the chimpanzees, the bonobos prefer to settle any conflict over just who is entitled to a juicy piece of carrot or apple by peaceful means rather than with physical violence.

In fact the bonobos have a reputation for being unashamedly amorous, using sex to sort out all manner of conflict as well as to show affection. Watch them during public feeding times at the park and you are guaranteed numerous X-rated displays - males with females, males with males, females with females, it’s anything goes!

The bonobos are the Vallée des Singes’ newest residents, arriving with much fanfare in late spring. Acquiring the nine primates was the culmination of a seven-year project, in partnership with the Association Européenne des Zoos et Aquariums (EAZA). The €2.2 million cost to create their new enclosure was largely funded by the park.

Only discovered in 1928, the bonobo is considered rare and endangered – there are only a few thousand in the tropical forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo where its habitat is disappearing and it is hunted for bushmeat – so the animal was always going to be at the top of the list for the park that prides itself on helping to preserve some of the world’s most endangered species.

bonobos at monkey valley

The park itself is relatively new, only opening its doors in 1998. It was an initiative of the Conseil Général de la Vienne which wanted to boost the economy of the south Vienne. Created in what used to be a forest of chestnut trees – it is still a green and leafy place; for every tree the park cuts down, it plants another five – it is now home to 30 species of primate. There are a total of 350 or so animals, from a 200kg male gorilla to a125g pygmy titi.
All the primates at Vallée des Singes have been born in captivity. ‘Today no animal can be caught in the wild,’ explains Jean-Pascal Guéry as he takes us on a tour. As its Director of Zoolology he is responsible for the animals’ well-being, along with the 15 permanent as well as seasonal keepers and work experience students under his watch. ‘We exchange animals with other zoos – there’s no money involved,’ he continues. ‘This is all done to try and cut down animal smuggling.’ The park is divided into 15 territories enclosed by a total five kilometres of canals – primates don’t like water - and bridges which work in the same way as cattle grids. ‘This way we don’t need to use electric fences,’ says Jean-Pascal.

Island paradise

Different primates or combinations of primates live on the islands, the open-air enclosures allowing them the freedom to roam, swing from trees or, in the case of mighty Gregory the gorilla, to sit Buddha-like and watch the aerial antics of the furry-tailed colobus monkeys that live above him. Each species also has a ‘house’ in which they stay during the night or to which they can retire during the day.

For the animals who have come from more traditional zoos, the Vallée des Singes is their first taste of any kind of freedom, as well as their first contact with grass, water and even the wind. ‘That was the case with the bonobos,’ says Jean-Pascal. ‘For the first few days they were quite frightened of liberty, and stayed near their house but now they climb trees and eat the grass. Although at the moment we still have an electric fence around their enclosure because they do not understand that the canal is dangerous.’

Jean-Pascal has worked at the park for the past ten years. Originally from Picardie, he studied zoology in Paris. He had no intention of working in a zoo until he did his stage (work experience) at Vallée des Singes. ‘Before I came here I had a negative image of zoos and animal parks,’ he says. ‘But here there are no cages, no bars, no visible barriers…’

He stayed on and two years ago was promoted to director. Today he works a 12-hour day and spends a lot of his time at his desk tied up in paperwork, but he still knows his charges well, fondly describing their different character traits.

Jean Pascal Guery

The bonobos, he explains, are very different to the chimpanzees although they are closely related. For starters theirs is a matriarchal society. ‘And they are more tactile and gentler,’ he says. ‘They are also much slimmer, with longer legs and arms, and half the weight. They have a “more human” face and when they walk they do so upright like humans.’

Unlike the other primates at the park, part of their house is accessible to the public who can watch them through glass. ‘The bonobos spend a lot more time inside because they have weak respiratory systems,’ says Jean-Pascal. ‘Their building is heated to 24 degrees celsius and 90 percent humidity. ’The five female and four male bonobos come from four different zoos (in Britain, Holland and two in Germany). The oldest is Daniela, aged 43; the youngest, Nakala, is almost four years old.

They arrived over a period of two years and were housed separately, only coming together as a group when they were introduced to their new 900m square enclosure. ‘It took them a very short time, just a couple of days, to live together peacefully,’ says Jean- Pascal. ‘That would be impossible with the chimpanzees! The bonobos were very curious to know each other. There was a lot of contact early on.’

If the bonobos are gentle, the chimps says Jean-Pascal, are the ‘rugby men’ of the ape kingdom. ‘They are strong and swagger about,’ he says. ‘They shout just to say “hello!”’

Angry Chimps

The nine chimps that live at Vallée des Singes are all male and are either brothers or half-brothers. They came as a group, in 2005, from a Dutch laboratory where they were used for research into a cure for AIDS. Has their behaviour changed in the six years they have spent away from the lab? ‘No,’ says Jean-Pascal. ‘They are still very stressed creatures and get aggressive easily. If, when we are feeding them, the watching audience is excitable they will react, becoming angry and throwing things. But at the same time they crave human contact because that is what they are used to.’ As we walk, a high-pitched and melodic but eerie wailing fills the air. It is the gibbons calling out to establish their territory, the sound heard up to five kilometres away.

Further on, the titis are watching their keeper as she cleans out their house, climbing to the top of the door and peering over the top of it with their huge eyes. ‘They sleep side by side, their tails are rolled into each other, like a braid,’ says Jean-Pascal. The naughtiest primates at the park, he reckons, are the capuchins. ‘They’re very interested in people’s glasses and mobile phones!’ he laughs.

Gorillas 

His favourites, however, are the gorillas. ‘They are so calm and discreet,’ he says. ‘People think that because of their size the gorillas are dangerous while the chimpanzees are fun but that’s not so. The chimpanzee is far more violent.’

The gorillas are one of the big success stories of the Vallée des Singes with nine babies born at the park over the past nine years - the first male gorilla to be born at the park, is now 12 years old and has just made the journey to Gerald Durrell’s Jersey Zoo.

During a recent snowy winter, when the other primates stayed snug inside their houses, the gorillas ventured outside, intrigued by the white stuff falling around them. The young ones even tasted it and enjoyed sliding around in it. However, if it is cold enough to freeze the canals, even the gorillas have to stay inside - otherwise chaos would ensue!

Monkey ValleyNot surprisingly, the colder months find the monkeys and apes spending most of their time inside. ‘We install hammocks, we add a new support and something that interests them such as a ball or a box,’ says Jean-Pascal. ‘They are very curious, they like new things.’

Keeping Healthy

Regardless of the season, health is always an issue. The animals are checked every day and the contact between humans is monitored. ‘If a keeper has a cold sore, you will find it on the apes not long after,’ says Jean-Pascal. Keepers who are not 100 per cent well, even just suffering from a sore throat, will wear face masks to prevent infection.

Each year, the 350 or so primates get through 110 tonnes of fruit and vegetables (the gorillas alone eat 15kg each per day, their high forehead built to support a powerful jaw). Ninety-five per cent of their diet revolves around fruit and vegetables but those that eat meat are given cooked chicken or turkey as well as insects such as mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers. Many are also given boiled eggs.

Some, such as the five woolly monkeys from the jungles of South America, have a specialised diet that is similar to that of a diabetic. Difficult to keep in captivity, the Vallée des Singes is the only park in France to keep them. ‘Each day we prepare a cake for them containing vitamins and supplements to boost their intake,’ says Jean-Pascal. ‘We do the same for others too, including the gorillas, bonobos, squirrel monkeys and titis and tamarins.’

Monkey-feeding-time

Feeding times, especially in the winter months, are made more interesting. ‘In the wild, a monkey spends a huge amount of time looking for food,’ says Jean- Pascal. ‘We try to do the same thing here. We hide their food so they have to spend time searching for it. Each animal has to renew its stash itself.’
By now, our tour has taken us to lunchtime and life at the park is slowing down, readying itself for siesta which the animals take between 2-4pm, either indoors or in a shady place in their park. ‘They rest at this time during winter as well as summer,’ says Jean-Pascal. As with the first, the last feed of the day is taken in private. Then the monkeys and apes head for their beds and a peaceful night. Well, perhaps not chez the chimpanzees!

Originally published in The Journal, July 2011 © All rights reserved


Words: Rachel Loos

Photos: Kathryn Dobson, Bonobos courtesy of La Vallée des Singes

 

VALLÉE DES SINGES

Le Gureau, Romagne (86).

Open from 10am every day from 30 March until 11 November in 2013. Closing times vary. Adults €17, children €11, under 5 free.

For more information see www.la-vallee-des-singes.fr

 


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