We didn’t have to go very far before we would attract a crowd. It occurred, most assuredly, almost everywhere we went by bicycle in Southeast Asia and elsewhere; but I’m not sure whether it was because of our mode of travel, our race, or because for most of it we were also traveling with a gibbon.
There are fundamental reasons why having an ape as a pet is wrong: one being the killing usually associated with its capture (the killing of its mother), another because such an animal deserves to be free and not be treated as a human. We weren’t as aware of conservation and animal rights in the early 70’s as we are today. Today we would be appalled by our behavior.
But back then Chunni was our “first child”; Peg felt more that way than I did. Back then we traveled half way around the world, into many countries, including the United States, without being really questioned about having an ape; all we needed were the right papers, easily obtained. And then we come to the tragic end, when Chunni died of a human illness given to her by our crawling son.
The reasons why people should never “own” wild animals seem straightforward enough (no matter how tame they may be), but it is clear that too often emotions override reasons.
It was like this. Chunni seemed bonded to us, particularly to my wife Peg. When we were traveling on our bicycles and elsewhere, she always rode on Peg’s hip; clearly there was a mothering aspect to this. Chunni wore a diaper. She clung to us as a child would (not true but it seemed that way). It may have been sad, but we were unaware of it.
There was a downside: it was perhaps Chunni who attracted the huge crowds. It was perhaps the gibbon that always made it impossible for us to go unnoticed.
“Where did the gibbon come from?”
“Laos. We always said Laos. Her papers said Laos.”
“How did you get her into the States?”
“We didn’t sneak her in. We landed at JFK in the middle of the night, and we went through customs and immigration with the gibbon on Peg’s hip (where she always rode). Because of her, we were separated from the other passengers, an advantage to us because we didn’t have to wait in line. Yes, the gibbon came across from Vienna with us in the cabin of the plane, from Vienna to New York. She wouldn’t go into a cage without screaming. So sedated, and with Peg holding her, she slept most of the way. All of this may seem hard to believe, but the really unbelievable part transpired at the US Custom’s Desk.
I tried to produce Chunni’s papers by digging through all of our carry-on bags. I panicked. Where were they? Chunni had papers from every country she had been in; from Laos and Thailand, throughout Southeast Asia, South Asia and overland to Vienna; she had more papers than we had. (And current on all of her shots.) Where were they? There was only one explanation: we had left them in our luggage, which at that moment was separated from us. And you would think (and most definitely hope) we would desperately need them. (We had our own passports and papers with us; we were caught up on our shots too.)
Someone should’ve given us a hassle; here we were trying to bring an ape into the United States of America, through JFK, and we couldn’t produce any paperwork. (Paperwork that had worked like a charm everywhere else.) It is impossible to know why we were waved through. Welcome home after five years. That’s how THE APE ended up living with us in New Mexico.