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Monkey World News

Monkey Business: Meeting the playful primates of Monkey World in Dorset

Friday 25 March 2011

The Lemurs at Monkey World, Photograph: Monkey World

It's not immediately obvious who is watching who.  As I stroll with my boyfriend, a troop of ring-tailed lemurs come over for a closer look with what I quickly realise are innocently inquisitive eyes.  As one scampers up a nearby tree, with impressive agility, to view us from above, another peers at us as if posing for a picture.

We are at Monkey World, an ape rescue centre in Dorset where about 240 primates live.  Before our visit, everybody we talked to about Monkey World recommended it.  In fact, I am here because a reader suggested the centre as a great day out on the Guardian's interactive Enjoy England map.  As I get up close and personal with these primates, I'm beginning to see why.

We join guide Mike Colbourne for a tour around the park's 65 acres and he tells us how the centre started.  Founded by Jim Cronin in 1987, Monkey World's first project was the rescue of abused chimpanzees being used as photographer's props on Spanish beaches.  Since then, the centre has never refused a needy primate a home.  It has rescued orangutans from the illegal pet industry, capuchin monkeys from laboratories and gibbons from the circus trade.

One of the first primates we encounter is Sally, a chimpanzee who was rescued from a Spanish beach in 1993.  Sally is one of the centre's older animals, probably born in 1989, and spends her time looking after babies in the chimpanzee nursery.  As we look through the windows, two of her current charges, Rodders and Bryan, are playfighting.  To us it appears that one of them might be about to lose an ear but to Sally this boisterousness is normal and she looks on with the unfazed look of someone who has seen it all before.

It is this boisterous behaviour, Mike tells us, which has led many primates to be abandoned by owners.  Stories of monkeys chained up in garages, kept in cramped cages and even fed drugs to keep them calm are all too common as we scan the primates' biographies attached to their enclosures.  At Monkey World, they have room to roam in different environments, from wooded communal areas with lots of foliage to private habitats they can retreat to, and it's clear from their behaviour that this helps them to thrive.

As we walk, we are mesmerised by a Mueller's gibbon named Adidas swinging from side to side by one arm and looking straight at us.  Trying to photograph the capuchin monkeys, we are teased by one, then another, coming out to pose for not quite long enough before bounding off with a cheeky backward glance.

Given their traumatic histories, it is amazing that the primates are so approachable.  The joy of a day at Monkey World is in the interaction.  These primates have suffered at the hands of humans, but their behaviour tells a different story, and it is this which makes watching then so special.

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