by Rone Tempest
Los Angeles Times
December 5, 1987

NEW DELHI: Donna Hughes and her 2-year-old son were driving contentedly down a major New Delhi avenue recently singing one of their favorite nursery rhymes:

Bah, bah, black sheep, have you any wool? …

The 27-year-old woman, an aquatics instructor and wife of a Canadian diplomat here, slowed the car as it approached an intersection. Suddenly something burst in the open driver’s-seat window and began ripping her hair. She instinctively clutched the steering wheel for protection.

“The natural impulse is not to look but to protect your face,” she recalled. She had been in India only a few weeks and had no idea what it could be that was hissing and spitting and scratching her neck.

When she finally summoned the courage to face her attacker, she was looking directly into the dull watery brown eyes of a raging rhesus macaca mulatta monkey. “His head was as big as mine and he was spitting and baring his teeth,” she recalled.

As Donna Hughes discovered, New Delhi has a monkey problem. In some cases, the monkeys that run wild here pose a serious safety hazard. Of course, sometimes, when they steal lunch boxes from school children or bathe in roof-top water tanks, they just stir up too much monkey business.

Increasingly, however, the 5 million residents of the Indian capital are not amused. “Simian Terror Plagues Capital,” blared a headline in the Times of India newspaper.

“Gangs of monkeys . . . reinforced by fresh groups from neighboring areas . . . have been causing havoc,” the report stated.

Letters-to-the-editor columns of the newspapers regularly feature anti-monkey letters from readers.

“Monkeys have become a major nuisance in the capital,” wrote Indraneel Banerjee, 51, in The Statesman newspaper. “They raid houses and carry away fruit, vegetables, eggs and anything else they like. Even medicines and sleeping pills are known to be lifted.”

Even pro-monkey lobbyists such a Dr. Iqbal Malik, a primatologist at Delhi University who has conducted a seven-year study of a monkey colony in the suburban Tughlakabad Fort area, admit that things have gotten out of hand in the densely populated inner city.

“There is a constant competition between human beings and monkeys for shelter and food,” she said.

In a strange case of reverse-Darwinism, monkeys have reengaged the humans for primacy, only this time on the humans’ home turf. There are those who think the monkeys are winning. Wrote Indraneel Banerjee, “It is difficult to take on these devils, as they come in groups.”

The city — both the ancient walled section and the new capital area — has always had colonies of the agile, big-eared, brown rhesus monkeys.

Monkeys are adored by India’s majority Hindu population, who see them as the descendants of the great monkey god Hanuman who helped Rama defeat demon armies in the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Every day, even along walks surrounding the office of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Hindus — their faces glowing with beatific smiles — can be seen feeding bags of bananas and nuts to New Delhi’s monkeys.

Until 10 years ago, however, the religious love of the monkeys was kept in a kind of ecological balance by the value of monkeys on the world market, where they were used extensively in scientific laboratories.

In fact, India was once the main exporter of the animal to Western researchers.

However, a 1978 law passed by Parliament under pressure from religious organizations and naturalists banned the export of monkeys. Since then, according to Dr. Malik, their population has tripled in the city. She estimates that as many as 5,000 monkeys now live in the capital.

Malik’s own study colony in the Tughlakabad Fort area has increased in eight years from 150 to 500 animals. Not only are the capital’s monkeys naturally prolific, but they are social animals and rove the streets in troupes of up to 100 monkeys each.

During evening rush hour when people are most likely to feed them scraps of food, they swarm over the majestic red sandstone government buildings designed in the Indo-Saracenic style by British architect Edward Lutyens. At twilight, it is as though the jungle had retreated and the Cambodian ruins of Angkor Wat have come alive again, complete with monkeys silhouetted on the skyline and thousands of people pouring from the doors.

Possibly because of religious sensitivities, the New Delhi municipal corporation has made only a token effort to combat the monkey menace. The city has one monkey catcher, a well-known local character named Attar Singh, 35, who claims to have captured 100,000 monkeys in his long career.

For every monkey he captures, usually luring the creature with food, Singh gets 95 rupees ($8) from the city. By Indian standards, he makes a good living on 20 monkeys a month, he said.

“A monkey is an equal adversary,” he told the Associated Press. “I have to confront them like an enemy. It is an art to trap them.” He said that after he captures the monkeys, he releases them in the wild miles outside of Delhi.

Dr. Malik, in letters to Prime Minister Gandhi and Parliament, where her husband is a sitting member, contends that Singh breaks up monkey social groups and often separates infants from their mothers.

“I have observed cases of death from clinical depression,” she said, who advocates capturing whole packs of monkeys and moving them en masse to a suitable rural location.

Some monkeys, however, should be allowed to remain in the city, she argues. “There should be a peaceful coexistence between the monkeys and the people,” she said.

In some instances, however, peaceful coexistence is not easy.

John Hampton is a diplomat with the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. He and his wife, Janet, both from Ohio, longed for the sweet corn from home that is not available in India.

They decided to grow corn in rooftop boxes at their home, located near a park where there is a large monkey population.

“We bought a Silver Queen variety imported hybrid,” Janet Hampton recalled wistfully. “We carried the boxes to the roof. We planted. We nurtured. We fertilized and we began our countdown.

“On the day we decided it was ripe we went to the roof, and monkeys had swung in from the woods and were having a feast.” She said at first she and her husband attempted to frighten the monkeys away with sticks but “they just bared their teeth and made it clear it was their corn.”

In the case of Donna Hughes, who was attacked by a monkey in a car not too far from the scene of the Hampton corn massacre, there was little permanent damage.

She jumped from the car. The monkey followed her and ran up a tree.

Fortunately, her son was more amused than frightened.

And after receiving five rabies shots for the open cuts on her neck where the monkey scratched or bit her (the doctor could not determine which), Donna Hughes is able to smile about the incident.

“It just brought things back into perspective for me,” she said over coffee in her New Delhi home. “It was a reminder that we are living in India. We are not living in Canada or the United States where we can drive along with the window open and be sure nothing will come jumping in.

“I don’t drive around with my window down here anymore.”

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