A (Monkey) Walk About Paris

Melissa Gatter, Class of 2015, shares details of her time in the Paris: Primates and Human Evolution program (Autumn 2012).

By Melissa Gatter, ’15

Every time someone asks me what I am doing in Paris, I answer, “Studying primates.” Then I wait a second for the other person to react. When they do (and they do), they ask why I would go all the way to Paris to study monkeys. And instead of correcting their improper terminology between primates and monkeys, I reply, “Pourquoi pas?” Why not?

On my first Friday in Paris, our class visited the Ménageries du Jardin des Plantes, home to the first zoo in the world. We were greeted by a few rambunctious Capuchins, mooning baboons, and mellow orangutans. My favorite part of the zoo—and the whole day—was spending fifteen minutes observing the orangutans. A female orangutan had placed herself in the corner of her enclosure right up against the glass closest to zoo visitors. As our class watched her from one side of the glass, she quietly studied us from her side. After about ten minutes, the female reached underneath her, grabbed a pile of hay she had been sitting on, and placed it on her head. Professor Tuttle explained to us that she was probably tired of all the attention and was looking for privacy. We all just took more pictures.

Later that day, we met with a French anthropologist, Professor Brunet, who also happens to be a world-renowned anthropologist. Brunet brought us into his office and talked about certain fossils we were currently studying, Sahelanthropus tschadensis and Australopithecus sediba, of which he had casts in his office. He brought up a lot of scientific terms that a week earlier none of us would have understood. Brunet then discussed his career, and we got to see what it’s like being an anthropologist. I learned that he has experienced everything from being jailed in Afghanistan during field work under suspicions that he was a spy to making groundbreaking (no pun intended) discoveries.

After our valuable meeting with Professor Brunet, we returned to the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle and headed to the Gallery of Anthropology. I have never seen so many bones in one place before, not even on crime dramas or Halloween. This large building was packed with the skeleton of every mammal that ever existed. Our professor took us to the section with the apes and a human skeleton, and we were finally able to examine in three dimensions what we had only seen in two during his lectures. It was fascinating, and I can only imagine what Ben Stiller would face in a Night at the Museum movie here. The next destination was a few steps away in the museum’s Gallery of Evolution, which housed a Noah’s Ark-type of animal congregation. Of course, there were monkeys here, too! Just not real ones…

The next Friday, our class had an excursion to La Vallée des Singes in Poitiers, a region in Romagne, France around 200 kilometers southwest of Paris. The Vallée is paradise for anyone studying primate or monkey behavior. Literally “The Valley of Monkeys,” La Vallée des Singes houses everything from spider monkeys to squirrel monkeys, baboons to capuchins, lemurs to gibbons, and bonobos to gorillas. The smaller monkeys and lesser apes (gibbons) belong to open enclosures, meaning they can technically leave their territory if they wanted to. Some do (stealing any food from visitors in the process) but they will always return (food being a major incentive). The great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas) and less friendly monkeys (mandrills) are in more secure outdoor enclosures. And by more secure, I mean that in addition to the two-foot-tall wooden fence, there is a stream. So although they could hop over or crush the fence if they ever tried to, they have to cross the stream first, and primates don’t know how to swim. The stream is not very wide or deep, but it is effective. Homo sapiens are also effective at keeping primates in their habitat. Not only do the ones working at the Vallée provide food right there in the enclosure, the ones visiting the Vallée are scary.    

We were never more than an arm’s length away from the cute little lemurs, capuchins, and squirrel monkeys. Of course, cute became frightening when one lemur jumped on the fence right in front of a girl in our class, who screamed.

We were lucky to observe a group of four female bonobos grooming each other, quite natural to chimps and bonobos. We also observed the chimpanzees at feeding time, but the most active were the gorillas. The group consisted of a VERY large and healthy looking silverback male, no doubt the dominant leader, several females, two infants, and a few juvenile black-backed males. The two infants quickly captured the attention of those of us watching intently as they ran in clumsy circles around their mothers, climbed up ropes, defiantly defended their twigs from the older bullies, and nestled into their mothers’ laps to rest. All the while, their mothers remained close by and very protective of their young. Overall, all the individuals in the group were quite submissive to the silverback, giving him space when he needed to do his business, and each one looked at the humans who were watching them in rapt attention with equal curiosity and attentiveness, scanning each of us with alert eyes.

I must have stayed there for 45 minutes just watching them. I hated when I had to walk away and leave them there (although I think they were happy to see us go after we had cheered loudly as an infant finally grabbed hold of a just-out-of-reach rope with the help of his mother).

On the bus ride back to the train station at Poitiers, I looked out at the French countryside and realized how valuable these excursion experiences have been. I already couldn’t wait for our next excursion to Elisabeth Daynes’s workshop, where we will observe the woman who put together a model of the earliest known biped and who does work for the Field Museum in Chicago with Professor Robert Martin, who teaches our course on Primate Evolution. Now I know what it means for an art historian to visit the Louvre or an English major to explore the Globe Theater. Not only did I have the opportunity to learn about ape behavior and evolution in the classroom—I then also got to see it with my own eyes! I was given the power to make my own observations with what I had already learned and to ask more questions to expand my knowledge. This was the kind of thing that couldn’t be taught through a textbook or even a documentary. Paris had become my classroom. And a beautiful one at that.

So to answer all the skeptics, I am in Paris because there is no experience that can equal my time abroad. I think it is important to remember what Professor Brunet had said in regard to the fieldwork of an anthropologist:

“You have two choices in life: to look for what you expect to discover, or to search for the unknown and unexpected. If you choose the first, you will live a quiet and happy life. If you choose the second, your life won’t be as quiet, you won’t get along with your peers all the time, but you will always be searching for something new. And this will leave you forever satisfied.”

And whether it’s cultural or academic, Paris has provided me with no shortage of lessons. I am discovering aspects about my fellow primates—and myself—that I never saw coming. It is this constant search for something new that has led me to every corner of the city.

But, “Pourquoi pas?” is a much shorter answer.

Melissa Gatter, ’15, participated in the Autumn 2012 program.

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