Life Along the Chimps Elysees

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For the past five years, thousands of endangered baby monkeys have been smuggled from North Africa into France for families dying to own the chic pet of the moment. But as the Barbary monkey, which the French call magot, grows, so do its fangs, claws and temper. As a result, some of these simians, like other fads, have been abandoned--tied to trees in the park, left there for nature to take her course. Nature, however, like fashion, can take unexpected turns. Now the French are worried that their latest bout of petty cruelty may have a bestial denouement.

"It's like the movie Gremlins," says Marie-Claude Bomsel, a veterinary expert at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. "These little creatures are adorable and docile while babies but become uncontrollable and violent in adulthood. Deprived of their natural socialization and incapable of adapting to human life, these monkeys become highly stressed, aggressive sociopaths that owners can't handle." The fear is that, left in parks and forests, the monkeys may turn on innocent humans taking walks in the woods.

If that happens, ultimate fighting would pale in comparison. Says Bomsel: "These monkeys are very aggressive, and being stronger than humans, will inflict serious injury by biting and clawing." The damage may be especially excruciating for males of the human species. "Mature male magots consider men rivals, and will target sexual organs during attacks. That could be bad--very messy."

For some owners, the adult magots' capacity for violence has only enhanced their appeal. The monkey now rivals pit bulls and Rottweilers as a favorite accessory in French public-housing projects.

But most of the French are not amused, and are watching with alarm every fresh report of monkeys abandoned in public spaces. This month, police captured an escaped magot in a Paris-area park, less than a month after a pair of free-roaming magots were captured in a park in Lyons. Earlier, an adult magot was found in Paris' Bois de Vincennes tethered to a tree. News of the Paris finding sparked a flurry of calls to park officials reporting herds of magots roaming among treetops--sightings that have yet to be confirmed.

What worries authorities is that the French magot population may be as high as several hundred thousand. "This is an endangered species protected by international accords," says Serge Belais, president of France's Society for the Protection of Animals. "And neither North African or French customs officials seem too concerned." Baby magots can fetch up to $90 apiece in Africa--and sell for $1,200 in France. But they are susceptible to illness and often die in captivity. Their bites can transmit such diseases as TB and hepatitis. "People are risking their lives by adopting these creatures," says Belais, "and hastening the magot's disappearance from the planet."

Judge Anne Vosgien, president of a Paris-based animal-protection association, says it's time to get tough on the trade in all sorts of exotic pets. "We've got to crack down on people with animals that are known to be uncontrollable and dangerous. We don't care if it's a monkey, pit bull, cobra or hamster--we want tougher and better-enforced laws making pet owners responsible for their animals."

Though the humane society and police have removed scores of adult magots from traumatized households, French zoos and animal refuges have begun refusing requests to assume care of unwanted monkeys. Previously, such easy outs for owners, says Belais, only encouraged the traffic in baby magots. Zoos, meanwhile, do not want to expose their simian populations to belligerent and often diseased domestic magots. "This is a slow massacre that only customs authorities can stop," Belais laments.

Sadly, the high-profile monkey problem may only be growing. Large numbers of baby magots were purchased by trendy Parisians just before the adult magot problems made headlines. If the monkey population explodes as feared--and fad-fatigued owners abandon their charges in greater numbers--men who plan to visit France's parks may want to don protective gear before they wander too far into the woods.