On a recent trip to Madagascar in search of wildlife in its natural habitat, we visited the magnificent Andasibe National Park, where a dozen species of lemur monkeys found nowhere else in the world make their home in the forest canopy. Viewing sifaka (“dancing lemurs”) normally seen only in captivity cavorting in the wild, leaping from branch to branch with an athleticism and grace touched by Terpsichore, moved us deeply. We felt reconnected to everything that modern life inexorably cleaves away. The best part was that our education and amusement didn’t come at the expense of another living creature’s freedom. We observed the lemurs — and the chameleons and birds and tree frogs — on their turf, on their terms. We were respectful guests.
One afternoon, however, we were mislead into visiting what had been billed as a conservatorship, a rehabilitation facility for lemurs. The place was called Lemur Island, but it may as well have been called Lemur Prison. As soon as we set foot on this “preserve,” we knew something wasn’t right. There were lemurs lolling on the ground, chillaxing like surfer dudes. A staffer remarked that they were full of bananas — provided to them by the visitors, who were permitted and encouraged to feed the inmates. Not long thereafter, we realized that we had come to a lemur petting zoo, where the monkeys jump on your shoulder and pose for pictures in exchange for fruit. Before we could escape the foul island via plastic canoe, our guide, one of the very few fat people we saw in all of Madagascar, demonstrated his best trick: He could so perfectly imitate the call of a local buzzard species — one of the lemurs’ predators — that the entire troop of monkeys would send out the alarm signal, screaming apoplectically.
The rich tourists who appreciate this kind of thing are always in the market for fresh amusements, no matter their spiritual cost. We departed Lemur Island feeling unclean and shaken. The memory of all those terrified monkeys, behaving with the certainty that their worst enemy, their most dangerous threat was looming, haunted us for days. The man whistled just so. The lemurs panicked. The desired result was enjoyed by some.
Upon our return to civilization, we were confronted by the news that the United States of America was once again at war — or whatever it is you call it when the President and not Congress declares that some faraway place shall be bombed. The ISIS organization was our latest target, the most recent existential threat to our national security. They looked the part and helpfully offered up frighteningly horrible propaganda videos that only a coward would ignore. They triple-dared us to fight them, and now we were beginning to show those godless bullies what happens when you mess with the greatest military empire on the planet. For a millisecond, we all felt safer.
When the buzzard whistles, when the beheading footage goes viral, it’s time to sound the alarm. It’s time to do what our monkey instincts tell us to do. One day, we pray, every creature imprisoned for another creature’s brief amusement will roam free, and one day, we pray, the greatest of apes will learn how to distinguish between an authentic threat and a zookeeper’s dirty trick.