Julie The Monkey: Motherhood ‘Interrupted’

Do animals have a sense of justice or a language to express their suffering and trauma?

I was told about this incident, about the case of a female monkey, Julie and her baby, once by a friend working in the London zoo; it touched my heart and I decided to write a story about it. Julie wasn’t too young and she had obviously become unattractive to the male within her enclosure although still part of his ‘harem’.

All higher mammals within the animal kingdom tended to have harems; it was the result of that primitive sexual drive that concentrated entire social formations in the animal world on the gene survival and perpetuation of the chief or alpha male in his harem. What of the babies? The male would then want to kill each newborn male within his harem so that he could liquidate chances of opposition from the very beginning.

Males who managed to grow up would have to move to other groups as soon as they became sexually active. There was no god to save these newborn males from the ire of their father and so it usually required considerable intervention on the part of zoo authorities to separate mothers expecting babies into independent cubicles so that they could give birth and wean in peace. If the baby was female, it could be re-introduced without fear into their father’s harem. Male babies were kept in separate enclosures along with some female babies, once they were weaned, with a few older females to look after them. No male monkey cared for the death of any child in general. Female monkeys also forgot these deaths as they had many more pregnancies to look forward to.

In Julie’s case, no one realized that she was pregnant. And since she gave birth on one Sunday night, nobody heard her screams of rage and pain as her disinterested partner, the chief male, Arnold dashed her newborn baby to death on the floor of the enclosure. The enclosure in-charge was horrified to discover Julie hunched protectively over the little mangled body of her new-born still covered with caked after-birth. From that day, Julie went ‘mad’.

She watched the world furiously from that corner of her enclosure, her body shielding the corpse of her baby. Her eyes were watchful, shiny and glazed as her now white hair glinting in the sun and discolored aged eyes watched the whole cage and the world beyond with secretive and suspicious hostility. No amount of coaxing or forcing could make Julie leave that corner. She guarded the baby’s corpse day and night brushing away ants and maggots from it lovingly. Her eyes developed a sunken quality as she and the corpse began to smell putrid as decomposition set in. Other members of the harem would avoid her corner and the baby laid stiff and motionless, legs in the air. Julie would lovingly stroke it with a leaf to soothe it. She would coo and talk to it and try to hold it to her breast sometimes.

Arnold was badly attacked one night when he sauntered too close to Julie’s corner, showing direct disrespect for her grief. Julie’s rage was a display of cosmic ‘tandav’, she pounced on him and bit him till he ran to save his life. Julie would bare her teeth at whoever tried to approach her and the whole enclosure began to stink. The zoo authorities were at a loss and tried to approach her in various ways. The situation became unspeakable, when Julie scooped up the remains of her dead child and climbed up the branch of a tree, resisting them. A decision had to be taken.

Julie no longer remembered her baby’s death. Out of extreme pain and trauma, she had blocked out its actual memory; she believed her baby to be alive, since she could not face the sudden trauma of its death. The presence of the body further trapped her into a denial about its death. Julie’s grief was no longer about her dead baby. It had gained vast proportions for her: the grief of motherhood harshly interrupted and deep ensuing shock that had served to unhinge her temporarily. The only solution was to somehow remove the corpse, now hanging somewhat pathetic and dismembered from a branch.

A day was decided and a telescope gun with anesthesia was aimed at Julie, who sat as usual holding the now unidentifiable bundle of tail and bones as flies buzzed around her, eyes exhausted. She yelped once sharply and then dropped down unconscious into the net below. The cage was cleaned and Julie spent some time in the infirmary thereafter. The zoo authorities were ambivalent about reintroducing Julie into Arnold’s harem again. It was a sensitive moment, since her crisis had already gained history within that community.

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Julie was discharged and carted across to her old home. At first, she did not do anything specific even though other females seemed to be scared of her. Other little babies were herded away from her by their mothers. Arnold ignored Julie, prowling around elsewhere at a distance. Julie slept a great deal. She did not seem to remember anything but she also seemed to miss something; it was a grey zone. However, she ignored Arnold refusing to warm up to him and was somewhat withdrawn and reclusive.

The zoo authorities ended their watch on Julie, since there was no further display of violence. Julie had evidently forgotten what she was grieving about, even though she remembered having somehow grieved; everyone else in the enclosure remembered too but life went on.

Things went on in this way till little Laila was born to one of the female monkeys in the enclosure. Laila was a deformed baby and her mother felt ambivalent about her as most animals do towards deformed newborns. But since all births took place in special cubicles now, the zoo authorities kept nursing the deformed Laila, born with a hunch and a leg dragging behind. Soon Laila was introduced into the enclosure to join her father’s harem with her mother only half acknowledging her presence. Laila oblivious of the discrimination continued to play and respond enthusiastically to her special bottle-feeds by zoo authorities six times every day. She was bright eyed, playful and inquisitive, a delight as all other monkey babies were.

My friend described her first emotions of trepidation despite jubilance to me as the zoo authorities first recognized the growing affinity between Julie and Laila and began observing them. At first Laila approached Julie tentatively, hobbling over her tail, waiting coquettishly for a reaction. At the slightest response, Laila would run yelping. After a while, Laila would approach Julie all over again and so the game continued. Gradually, Laila became bolder; she would sit quite close to Julie, who ignored her only on the face of things but also watched covertly with veiled interest. When Laila slept, lonesome in some corner of the cage, outside the charmed circle of her mother and her other siblings; Julie would walk over and inspect her.

So it continued till they both acknowledged their interest for each other more actively and Julie began allowing Laila to climb all over her. Laila, full of innocence and overjoyed about Julie’s acceptance gave herself over to her adoptive mother basking in new found friendship and love. Soon Laila and Julie became inseparable. Laila would play all day as Julie pulled her back on her lap to cuddle her. Julie’s face was infused with an internal glow as she beheld Laila with wonder as the best creation under the sun….stroking her, kissing her and grooming her. They became a world unto themselves.

This new friendship did not go unnoticed; in fact, it had a strange effect on the rest of the females in the harem. Gradually, they came to sit around Julie as well, as they suckled their young, slept and groomed each other all day basking in the sun. Julie had become silent and somewhat masculine in her strength, displaying complete indifference to Arnold; her personality had changed, her body radiating well-being even though she had grayed completely. The group of female monkeys in Arnold’s harem tightened perceptively around Julie and Laila as he began spending an increasing amount of his time on his own. He prowled around disconsolately, sometimes hooting loudly and thrashed around from branch to branch in order to draw attention.

The ladies spent their entire day on Julie’s side of the enclosure as if in camaraderie, as the space on Arnold’s side yawned emptily; the harem became polarized from its alpha male. It happened sometimes my friend said; a zoo enclosure was like putting animals in a much smaller home than what they are used to in their natural habitat. Here, in small enclosures, internal politics developed and fights broke out. Zoo authorities were especially careful about fights because these could get gruesome. Arnold dared not come close to his harem as most of the older female monkeys bared their teeth at him.

It seemed that the impossible had happened. The older female monkeys had rejected Arnold, turning hostile to him, even as the group around Julie gradually slackened into comfortable and friendly familiarity over time. An increasing number of fights broke out between the older females and him and finally, the bewildered Arnold was transferred to another enclosure with younger females, from where he would gaze upon his old home. He was miserable but at least he was safe.

When my friend told me this unbelievable story about Julie and Laila, I wondered whether animals had a sense of justice, which we often dismiss as result of human affect in interpretation. I wondered whether animals had a language about suffering and the way in which they could dialogue in order to express interrupted motherhood.

 Pic credit: Paul Joran (Used under a Creative Commons license)


About the Author


Deepra Dandekar is a feminist historian working on narratives of religion, community and violence in India, currently living with her husband in Germany. read more...

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