Posted by: adventuressetravels | August 17, 2012

Rubbing Elbows with Death

I have never been a fan of monkeys.  Maybe they are just a little too close to a hairy, primal version of humans, but even as a child monkeys were never the animals I wanted to see at the zoo.  There was always just something about them that made me uncomfortable – that I didn’t trust.  The more interaction I have with them the more respect I have for them and more I want to keep my distance.  Now I wonder if this weren’t some kind of foresight, after all a monkey was very nearly the cause of my untimely demise.

On my second trip to Vietnam I was perusing couchsurfing profiles of people living in Nha Trang looking for hosts or just cool people to meet up with when I stumbled across a girl named Cat’s.  She was an expat writer from the states who rode horses and it just seemed like we’d get along.  I sent her a couch request and a few days later she wrote me one of the stranger replies I have received.

A die-hard animal lover, she had recently rescued a baby monkey from a street trader and was trying to find an animal rescue that would take him.  The problem?  He was a Macaque monkey and 70-100% of Macaques carry Herpes B, a lethal form of the disease to humans.  Not only did this made wildlife centers hesitant to take him, but living with and hand-feeding the monkey was risky at best.

That said, if I was still willing to come then Cat said she’d love to have me.  As cool as Cat seemed, I respectfully withdrew my request to surf her couch.

She understood and we made plans to meet up and grab lunch while I was in town.

A few days before I got to Nha Trang Cat did find a home at a wildlife rescue for her house-refugee, but my travel buddy, Dan, and I decided to stick with the original plan to stay at a hostel and meet up with her for lunch.  We had to meet that day though: she was leaving for Saigon in the evening.  She was worried the monkey might have given her Herpes B.

Half an hour later we met and headed to one of her favorite local seafood restaurants.  Eating anything else in the seaside town famous for its mouthwatering dishes would be almost sacrilege.   The open-air restaurant was situated perfectly to catch the sea breeze just right and we relaxed in the dark wooden chairs and looked at pictures of the rescued monkey while we waited for our food.

I tried to feel compassion for the little creature as I looked through the pictures.  I am sure that a lot of people would find it cute, but the animal looked like Gollum on Rogaine to me.  All I could think was that this hideous little beast looked like it would spread a fatal disease.

Over lunch, Cat told us more about why she had to leave for Saigon so quickly.  She had been to the doctor in Nha Trang who had diagnosed her symptoms, eye pain, headaches, a stiff neck, tight pressure on her face and pressure in her ears as conjunctivitis.  This was a red flag: the last person  to die from Herpes B was also initially suffered from these symptoms and was diagnosed with conjunctivitis.  When she tried to tell the doctors this they brushed her off.

As Herpes B is 80% lethal to humans, and the ones who don’t die almost all severe neurological dysfunction if it isn’t caught and treated.  Cat had to get to the top-notch hospitals in Saigon to find someone who would listen to and give her the intense treatment she needed as soon as humanly possible.  If they wouldn’t listen to her in Saigon then she would simply have to fly to Bangkok.

She still wasn’t sure she had the disease.  The baby monkey had bitten her, but never broken the skin.  Still, she had hand-fed him and been living with him for weeks.  Still, better safe than sorry and she had already started taking a high dose of Acyclovir, a medication used to treat the disease, but if she really did have it she would need IVs and things only hospitals could provide.  Now I love animals, and as much as I admire and respect people like Cat, risking my life to help one is too much for me.

Halfway through our mouthwatering meal of shrimp and fish stirfrys, she sneezed.  Like some kind of Hollywood special effect I could see droplets of liquid flying across the table in slow motion. “Sorry! I spit!” she said laughingly.

In an instant, a cold fear came over me:  I could feel my throat closing up.  I had it, I just knew it.  Next stop neurological dysfunction, encephalitis, then death.  Though Herpes B had been slow to spread in the past and there were only 50 recorded cases (who knows how many went unrecorded) this monkey clearly had been carrying a different strain.  It was the index patient and now it would spread like wildfire, wiping out the world’s population.

For the next week both my travel buddy and I were jumping at shadows.  By the next day Cat had started having dizzy spells and vomiting in Saigon.  When Dan announced that his neck was sore a few days later we looked fearfully at one another.

If you see baby monkey you should never buy it as a pet.  Not only is it potentially lethal to own a Macaque; any wild animal can be dangerous.  Kidnapping any wild animal from its natural environment is bad but selling wild monkeys is an especially cruel trade.  The black market monkey slave-traders often kill the entire adult troupe of monkeys to capture and sell the young.  These poor traumatized babies are forced to watch their parents slaughtered and then doomed to a life of enslavement.

Index case Gollum

Index case Gollum
photo courtesy of Catherine Besch

Thankfully this story does have a happy ending.  The baby Macaque is happy in a wildlife refuge.  Cat survived and came out of everything unscathed, astronomical medical bills aside.  And neither Dan nor I caught the insidious virus.  Still, this doesn’t help me at all with my feelings towards monkeys.  I had already kept a healthy distance of the ones I had seen in the wild.  With 22 different species of Macaques and given that they are the most widespread type of monkey I think I’ll have to double that.


  1. Moral: Don’t monkey around

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