Sunday, August 03, 2008

the monkey house

Frances, as some of you know, is a research scientist in the field of infertility. She analyzes vaginal swabs taken from female rhesus macaques. Central to the irony here is that Frances:
1. had her tubes tied in her twenties
2. married a man with 3 teenagers (the novel takes place 10 years after that though)
3. has just been willed her cousin's troubled teenage daughter

Frances has, naturally, many issues around maternity. She and her mother have a difficult relationship. As the eldest of six children, she was stuck babysitting a lot. She likes dogs better than children. She likes monkeys way better than children. Yet she writes grants and does research in service to continuing the species. The human species.

One of Frances's sayings is: I much prefer the company of non-human primates.

Luckily for me, one of the most important primate centers in the world in regard to this work is a few miles from my house. Also luckily for me, I met the Director of the primate center when I went down to the Murdock Science Teachers shindig in San Diego last January, and also have a contact who works there full time.

On Friday I got to tour the facility--well, at least the multi-million dollar shelter housing units where the monkeys get it on, present their vaginas for swabbing and pop out little baby macaques that are cuter than anything on the planet.

The monkeys were so cool. I watched one teenage monkey try to snatch a baby from the mom, and get scolded for it (the speculation here was that the teenager was "alo-parenting," as opposed to out-and-out baby-stealing).

And there was plenty of grooming and humping to observe, too. And baby-frolicking, particularly in the two-acre open-air Japanese snow monkey corral. The monkeys had just been fed dry rotini noodles as a treat, and they'd scrambled up to the area where the macaroni was scattered like confetti, and all you could hear was this crunching sound, like crickets or cicadas on a humid night.

My goal here was to fall in love with them. To feel what Frances feels for them. To humanize them, perhaps. I had moments like that, actually, but what I felt wasn't quite love. It was more envy, I think. Like I wanted to be a monkey and live in that primate center and I'd even be okay with having my vagina swabbed from time to time in the name of science. I was especially envious when I found out that old world monkeys reabsorb their menstrual blood. How cool is that?

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