Monkey Business: S.F. Critics Go Ape Over 'Bounty Hunter'

Times Staff Writer

The primatologist aimed her binoculars over the steering wheel of her car on a recent morning and focused on a plum tree at the end of a residential cul-de-sac. From the kitchen of a condo nearby, a woman in a nightgown observed the scientist at work. The resident must have heard that primate researcher Janice Chism was in the neighborhood looking for monkeys, and it was embarrassingly obvious that there were no monkeys in sight.

In Kenya, where Chism previously spent several years tracking patas monkeys, the work might have been demanding, she said, but at least no one was looking over her shoulder.

Free to Criticize

Now, ever since the 37-year-old scientist was hired by the San Francisco Zoo to track down a 12-pound patas monkey and her 4-month-old infant that escaped from the zoo's new primate center on July 11, everyone in the city seems to feel free to criticize her job performance.

Some have tagged her "a bounty hunter." Others have suggested she must not be much of a monkey tracker if, after several weeks on the job, she still hasn't bagged the primates. Supervisor Louise Renne was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying that local psychics who have joined in the hunt "certainly can't do any worse" than Chism.

Although the tracker has had the pair under observation a number of times, she has never had to actually catch a monkey before, and it seems no one will be satisfied until Chism has mother and baby patas safely back in their pen. "It's just not going to be easy to trap this monkey," Chism said, frustrated that the animals had not returned to feed on the plum tree where she had spotted them the day before. "I've started calling her (the mother patas) Nadine after the Chuck Berry song." Chism explained that while combing the streets for patas one day recently, she heard Berry's "Nadine" on the car radio. It's about a man pursuing a woman through the city. Like Chism, he is unsuccessful in nabbing his prey.

When zoo officials contacted Chism shortly after the pair disappeared, she said she rushed to the zoo with her 16-month-old son and said she'd do whatever she could to help bring in the duo. Although she's probably the world's top authority on patas monkeys (she's studied them in captivity for 13 years and in the wild for three), Chism has never until now been able to find paid work in the field of primatology; currently, she teaches human sexuality at a community college in Oakland.

Although the primates are estimated to be worth only about $250 each, the zoo is making an extreme effort to find them, according to spokesperson Ellen Newman, "because any animal, no matter how valuable in a financial sense, is valuable in another sense just for itself. They could get hurt out there, and we don't want that to happen."

As well as being concerned for the runaways' welfare, Chism said she was intrigued by the scientific challenge involved in the pursuit. It would give her an opportunity to see how well her skills learned in the African woodlands translated to parking lots and urban backyards, for one thing.

And because Nadine and infant have never lived in the wild, Chism was anxious to determine "in what ways would she (Nadine) behave in a completely patas-like manner? This will tell us a lot about how patas behavior is genetically encoded," she said. "Everything we see her do is data. We'll never get a chance like this again."

Working from reported sightings, Chism traced the escapees' path from the zoo to the Stern Grove area about a mile away. Finding little food to their liking there, the two moved on to the vicinity of student housing at UC San Francisco Medical Center, Chism said. Within a few square miles, Nadine and baby found wild blackberries, fruit trees and gardens full of the kinds of things they like to eat. "They just started nipping into people's backyards for food," Chism said.

Before long, Chism was hot on the monkeys' trail. Meanwhile, some animal lovers were asking why the patas pair must be caught at all.

Chism, however, thinks it unlikely the two would survive on their own in San Francisco.

Can't Tolerate Cold

"I think it's essential to get them back before it gets rainy and cold," she said. When winter sets in, the monkeys' food supply would be dangerously reduced, Chism explained; furthermore, patas monkeys cannot tolerate cold, damp weather.

There are also urban threats to consider. A dog might go after the baby monkey; or the pair could be infected with human viruses if they started eating garbage. Traffic is also a danger, even though they've been lucky in dealings with automobiles so far. A bus driver who spotted them on busy 19th Avenue reported that the mother patas appeared to look both ways before crossing.

"Patas are an incredibly wary species," Chism said. "It's part of their predator adaptation to be suspicious, and I think we (trackers) qualify sufficiently as predators." There's not a chance, then, that Chism is going to be able to amble up to them and lead the primates home by the paw.

With the help of a biologist who is an expert in trapping, she has set two traps in a community garden where Nadine and baby have been seen feeding. So far, the monkeys have not revisited the garden.

Chism insisted that the pair did not run away from the zoo because they were being mistreated. The roomy new patas enclosure is "monkey heaven," she said. One tree just happened to be a little too close to the wall of the enclosure, and Nadine took advantage of the opportunity to leave.

Why she--and not the other five patas in the pen--departed, is uncertain. Chism said it's possible that the monkeys had been sparring for dominance in the new setting, not unlike what happens "if you throw kids together at summer camp." Because Nadine gave birth soon after the exhibit opened at the zoo, she was at a disadvantage in the pecking order. "It may be she was the most motivated to find another place to live, " Chism said.

Chism recalled spending many a tedious day crouched uncomfortably under an acacia tree in Africa when it was more than 100 degrees in the shade. Flies from nearby cattle would torment the primatologist, and there was nothing to look forward to at the end of a day of monkey tracking but a dinner of cheese and crackers that tasted, she said, of detergent.

The work has taken on a different character in the city where tour buses rumble through the monkey habitat, and Chism and volunteers who help her search discuss which restaurant they would like to try at lunch time. At day's end, there is the prospect of going home to a shower and family. (Chism has a 16-year-old daughter in addition to her infant son. Her husband is a zoologist.)

"One day someone even brought me a pizza out here while I was working," Chism marveled. "This is just not the way you usually do field work."

Chism had changed into her canvas hiking boots and was walking a wooded path near UC San Francisco Medical Center. A layer of fallen eucalyptus leaves obscured any monkey tracks she might have found.

The primates could be anywhere in the hip-high blackberry and ivy thicket, Chism observed. They move about on the ground, using trees only to sleep in and for lookouts. The color of a golden retriever, with tufts of gray over their upper lips, the animals have long tails and could easily be mistaken for domestic cats from a distance. Adding to the difficulty of the search is that patas is a silent species. You'll rarely hear one make a sound, she said.

It's not like Chism to speculate about what an animal is thinking, but she did say that the baby patas was probably "going nuts with no one to play with." Patas depend on other members of their group to watch for predators, so Chism guessed that Nadine "is probably very nervous without a group. I suspect one thing she's doing is she's looking for more patas. She doesn't realize there are no other patas out there."

A day spent clinging to an exposed slope on Twin Peaks took its toll, and Chism came down with flu-like symptoms early this week, but was back at work Wednesday.

Despite such delays, Chism is prepared to continue to search for as long as it takes to trap two small red-gold monkeys in a city of about 720,000 humans and innumerable shrubs, rooftops and other hiding places.

Chism admits to sometimes wishing the task were a little easier: "Next time, I hope they'll hire me to find a giraffe. They cut a wider swath."

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