MUGGLING ANIMALS TO FREEDOM
Three months later I was again in Saigon, and saw the animal market. The cavernous shed brought back a flood of memories - A tiny leopard cub with tufty ears clinging to a pint-sized baby macaque. That hollow, empty feeling, watching bedraggled animals pace back and forth behind filthy bars.
But this time things were different. I wouldn't have to wander helplessly among the cages wishing there was something I could do - because there was. I could buy them and take them to Cuc Phuong.
Jochen argued, rightfully, that purchasing endangered animals would only encourage the black market trade. He had a point, but I thought the situation in Vietnam had moved beyond the possibility of educating the population before there were no longer any animals to protect. Even Tilo agreed that their only future was extinction in the wild, with possible repopulation from captivity once the poaching pressure was removed. Shouldn't we be siphoning away as many animals as we could, to increase the captive gene pool and their ultimate chance for survival? A flourishing animal trade was already in place. We weren't encouraging it as much as we were depriving one more wealthy Chinese gentleman of a placebo tonic for his unfortunate arthritis.
Jochen agreed to accompany me inside but repeated his objection to my crackpot scheme. I didn't try to change his mind. I simply hoped, when the time came, that he would help me load a few orphans on the train before riding south into the Mekong.
The market was as dark and dirty as I remembered it. I trolled for gibbons, ducking behind hide-filled counters and muttering discretely to perspiring proprietors, and eventually a tiny infant appeared. It was snowy white and soft as a merino lamb, with large round eyes and implausibly long arms and legs. Jochen put aside his camera to come and see. The gibbon extended a tentative arm and wrapped his tiny hand around Jochen's equally cautious finger. In a moment they were snuggled in a corner, the infant clinging to his shirt with all its might while he stroked its head and murmured gentle German endearments.
I wandered over. "Does this mean you'll help me put them on the train?" I asked.
"I'm going with you," he said softly. "We'll take as many as we can."
I scoured the market for more gibbons, without success. I returned to the stall where Jochen had finally torn himself away from the clinging baby. Too late. The owner had noted the entire interaction with an appraising eye.
"How much?" I asked. Two hundred was the going rate.
"Two thousand dollars." She smiled sweetly. "Cash."
I banished Jochen to the stall with tiger hides and snakeskin belts, a safer place for his soft heart, and negotiated in earnest. The price dropped in painful fits and starts, and lodged at $260. She had other buyers, she said, five Chinese businessmen who were happy to pay what she asked. I conferred with Jochen and we agreed to play it safe and check our visa status before buying the infant. Besides, if we called her bluff on the Chinamen nonsense then she would have to lower her prices.
We left with heavy hearts.
The next morning Jochen and I were both up early and prowling the streets around the visa office long before it opened its doors. The immigration official dismissed us with a wave. "They will be ready this afternoon," he said and shut the gate firmly in our faces. We raced back to the market.
The infant gibbon was nowhere to be seen. Its former owner shrugged and wiggled her hand. "The Chinamen came back," she said. She waited for the disappointment to sink in. "But I have another..."
It was indeed a different baby, younger than the first. It sat in the middle of its steel cage, its long arms wrapped around itself, sucking mightily on the wrinkled skin just above its elbow. It whistled in terror when the proprietor tried to drag it out, its eyes widening and its arms clinging tightly to its own body. It made no effort to grab hold of Jochen's shirt and I noticed a bloody spot on each arm where it had chewed off its fur in psychotic distress.
I left Jochen to check out the rest of the market, and this time met with more success. Four gibbons were expected in the city that afternoon and would be China-bound by freighter the following morning. We could have them if we paid cash up front. I returned to find Jochen trying to coax the downy infant into sucking on the end of a banana, and began the tedious process of negotiating. The implicit competition from the incoming gibbons brought down the price, and soon we were offered the bargain-basement deal of $180 for one of the last remaining Vietnamese gibbons in the world.
"We should wait until we have our visas," Jochen insisted as he rocked the frightened infant. I went through the motions of arguing with him, knowing that an infantry platoon couldn't pry him away from his tiny charge. Turnover in the marketplace was so quick, I pointed out, that if we waited another day then this one would probably be sold. Jochen agreed.
"In that case," I said, "I'll be back." I dashed off and returned a few minutes later with my own arms full of three young leopard cats and a two-month-old clouded leopard cub. Leopards eat gibbons, Jochen pointed out . We reluctantly purchased two of the hateful steel-bar cages. Then we looked at our small mountain of cages and animals and wondered how on earth we were going to get them back to our guesthouse.
Jochen slalomed expertly through rush-hour traffic while I balanced precariously on the back of his bike, trying to look nonchalant with four restless leopards stuffed inside my jacket and a gibbon under one arm. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth against the casually gripping claws and tried to savor a unique moment that might never come again. A cat fight erupted under my breasts.
We smuggled them up the guesthouse stairs and into my room. The leopards quickly disappeared under the bureau. Jochen left for the post office to call Tilo and ask just what a baby gibbon might be expected to eat. I stayed behind to turn an old sock into a protective covering for its swollen arms. He returned with a tin of baby formula, an armful of bananas and instructions to administer both by eyedropper every two hours, day and night. We fed them until their bellies were round and they gurgled with contentment. Once they were comfortable - the monkey lying amongst a half dozen soft toys and the leopards curled up like hairballs under the bed - we snuck away to visit immigration and retrieve our passports.