When we decided last year to move to Costa Rica, I established one personal rule that I thought would make living in Monteverde easier and safer for everyone: Under no circumstances would I take any shit from monkeys.
I’ve never really been one of those people who thinks monkeys are cute and entertaining. As far as I’m concerned, your average organ grinder on the street is just setting himself up to get his face torn off the moment he lets his guard down. Clint Eastwood must have kept Clyde doped up on heavy horse tranquilizers, otherwise he would have ended up every which but alive. And Curious George? You know who else was curious and always getting into trouble? Jeffrey Dahmer, that’s who.
That having been said, we had our first wild monkey encounter this past Tuesday.
Pam, Rae and I were walking back from the local health food store/vegan bitchfest center when Rae saw something moving in the treetops across the road. She pointed at some shaking tree leaves. Eventually climbing out of the leaves and perching himself on a patch of barren branches was a full grown capuchin, one of Costa Rica’s most violent and unpredictable monkeys.
This particular capuchin was nothing but a slab of lean muscle, black and white fur, and incisors that looked like they could chew threw a telephone pole. He sat at the very top of the tree about 50 feet in the air. The branch bobbed up and down beneath his weight. It was hard to judge his size because he was silhouetted against the setting sun. If I had to guess, though, I’d say he was between 185 to 225 pounds.
“Dad, it’s a monkey!” Rae squealed.
This was a major understatement.
As a father, I sometimes fantasize about how I’d respond if Rae’s life was ever threatened. Would I be able to swim through the riptide and haul her back to shore? Could I summon the strength necessary to miraculously lift the overturned car and free her trapped leg? If the woman at the Starbuck’s drive-thru accidentally gave us banana bread when Rae ordered pumpkin loaf, would I have the courage to go inside and exchange it?
After our run-in with the capuchin, I think I can honestly say that, yes, I could do all those things.
Without hesitation, I slammed Rae face first into the dirt in front of the health food store and threw my entire body weight onto her. I moved with the swiftness and determination of a veteran Secret Service agent diving in front of the president to take a bullet.
Adrenaline pumping, I braced myself for the sharp, piercing sting of monkey claws ripping into my back. I quickly ran through possible scenarios in my mind. If the capuchin was a male, I would jam my fist into his mouth then crush his testicles in a vise-like grip with my other hand. I read about someone doing this to a polar bear once when I was a kid. If it works on bears, I figured it should totally wreck a monkey. If the capuchin was a female, I’d go for the mouth with one hand and use the other to gouge out her eyes.
Rae was as terrified as I was. She clawed furiously at the gravel with her little fingers and kicked at the ground as hard as she could. Her fight-or-flight response had kicked in, and flight was clearly winning. She was trying to get out from under me and run away, but I knew we wouldn’t last 30 seconds against the capuchin on his own jungle turf. I carefully tucked her arms behind her back and pinned them there with my weight.
“Dad, I can’t breathe!”
I couldn’t blame her for being scared, but now she was clearly hyperventilating. That wasn’t going to make my job any easier.
I tried to calm her down.
“Rae, you have to relax. It’s going to be OK. I am NOT letting that monkey touch you.”
I looked up at the capuchin. He bared his teeth and slowly bit a fig in half. You didn’t have to be Marlin Perkins to figure out the message he was sending: “This is just an appetizer, friend.”
I was hoping some locals would chip in and help, but as is so often the case in emergencies everyone who had come out of the health food store just stood there and stared. They either didn’t know what to do or simply refused to put themselves in harm’s way. Either way, they were nothing but a bunch of useless hippies in my eyes.
Unfortunately for me, Pam wasn’t much help either. She was overcome by panic and had come totally unglued.
“What the fuck are you doing!” she kept screaming at me.
I didn’t have time to explain. Making about a thousand mental calculations a second, I decided the capuchin would probably try to get Rae first since she was the smallest and weakest. There was no way I was going to let that happen. I was still pretty pumped up. I felt confident that if that stupid ape came after us, people would be finding bloody monkey remnants in front of the health food store for the next month.
Rae was just too young to overcome her natural instincts. She was trying even harder now to break free from my protective embrace. Squirming and writhing, all she wanted to do was hightail it out there.
So there I was trying to protect Rae, keep an eye on the capuchin and get Pam to calm down and stop kicking me in the ribs. I’m not entirely sure how she thought that was going to help, but again, she had totally lost her head. Fog of war and all that.
In between blows from Pam, I checked on the capuchin. He hadn’t moved an inch. He just sat there coolly biding his time, eating figs, waiting for an opening.
At this point, I actually started to panic a little bit myself. My strength was fading. Rae is only eight years old, but she was flailing around like a coked-up Amy Winehouse in a Bogota disco. I worried that if she broke free, the capuchin would see his chance and be on her in a second.
Now, what happened next still surprises me. I’m not sure exactly what made me do it. I guess it was just the raw, pure instinct of a father with his back to the wall, or in the case, his back to a rabid carnivore.
I tenderly but firmly placed my forearm on the back of Rae’s neck to make sure she was safe and looked straight at the capuchin.
I hadn’t really thought about what I’d say. It just sort of bellowed out of me.
“Hey asshole! You…can’t…have…her!”
I swear to god, the capuchin actually flinched. The fig fell from his hands.
The hippies even ran back into the store.
Rae was still terrified and continued crying and squirming under me, but I must have snapped Pam to attention because she immediately started helping. She flagged down a police officer and begged him to “help me save my daughter.” Thank god she finally started doing something.
The fury in my voice must have made the capuchin realize we weren’t some gringo pushovers he could turn into a mid-afternoon snack. Still staring at me, he scratched his stomach, dropped an enormous defecation into the jungle, then used his prehensile tail to swing to another tree behind him. Then to another tree, then another. And then just like that, he disappeared completely into the foliage.
I was still a little freaked out, but I figured since the police were hauling me off of Rae they must have figured it was safe. I couldn’t tell what the hell they were saying because I still don’t speak their gibberish language, but judging from the way they kept waving their guns in my face I guess they wanted me to know they could shoot the damn thing if it tried to attack us again.
Pam picked up Rae and hugged her. Rae was crying pretty heavily. I don’t blame her. Again, it’s hard to say exactly, but the capuchin had to have been at least five times her size. Pam grabbed a cab, and the two of them headed back to the apartment.
I had to go with the police back to their little office in Santa Elena. It was a total shit hole and even the waiting room they put me in had barred doors on it. They probably use it for overflow when the locals get rowdy on Friday nights.
As far as I could tell, they needed my help filing their report on the whole incident. They kept asking me the same question over and over. It was something like, “Tee in ays un ah-bo gado? Tee in ays un ah-bo gado?!”
I was pretty sure that “gado” was the word for “cat.” I kept telling them, “No gado! No gado!” Then I’d jump around like a monkey.
Fat lot of good it did me. They just sat there and stared at me like a bunch of idiots. Christ, they all probably have monkeys running through their living rooms every night. They didn’t know what a monkey jumping up and down looked like? Morons.
I still don’t know what all the fingerprinting was about, but I was hungry and tired and just wanted out of there. I let them get it over with so I could go home. More than likely it was just some clerical crap.
This was all a few days ago.
Rae and Pam still haven’t been able to thank me. In fact, neither one has spoken a word to me since that day. I hope it’s not some kind of PTSD thing.
I’m being patient, though, and not trying to force anything. Rae is pretty young, and it was a crazy event. God only knows what kind of trauma seeing that monkey may have caused her. I think she just needs to process it in her own way.
In Pam’s case, I think she’s just embarrassed that she flipped out when the danger hit. I don’t blame her for not doing more. The whole incident happened pretty quickly, and I think men are naturally more adept at handling these kinds of situations.
Regardless, we’ve got another four and a half months down here to work our way through it. I’m pretty confident Rae will stop crying whenever she sees me and Pam will figure out how to overcome her guilt.
I guess the most important thing now is both of them know that no matter what Monteverde throws at us, they can count on me to get the family through it.
This capuchin, currently on death row, visits with his lawyer.
Human flesh makes the capuchin sleepy.