MUGGLING ANIMALS TO FREEDOM
A week later we returned to Vietnam by bus. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh thick-witted with eight hours of airless heat, abraded from gritty dirt and delighted, in the most shamefully parental way, to see our animals again. We immediately examined them for signs of growth, character development and most importantly, whether they were glad to see us.
The gibbon had acquired a new tailor and looked quite dapper in her protective shirt. The two youngest kittens were slowly losing their octopus-like gait from calcium deficiency. The oldest leopard, subjected to six long weeks of black market abuse, was still most comfortable under the bed. He now felt confident enough to defend his space, and when I took the liberty of scooping him up he let out such a reverberating roar that I immediately set him down again. Since he was small enough to fit inside one of my larger pockets, his newly voiced opinion was as surprising as an elephant's bugle emerging from the depths of a medium-sized mouse. Now that we were back, Jochen I immediately conspired to make a second sweep of the marketplace, to pick up as several additional gibbons and maybe even a langur or two before heading up to Tilo's sanctuary.
The following morning we arrived at the market well prepared, our pockets stuffed with thick bricks of Vietnamese currency, bananas and baby formula. The turnout wasn't quite what we had hoped for - one gibbon with a badly cut hand - but we were repeatedly assured that seven more would be available by early afternoon. We could afford only five, maybe six if we bargained well. We reluctantly agreed to reject the damaged infant in favor of more healthy stock.
I gave the baby gibbon back, but not before an older man with a gray-streaked beard had snapped a dozen photos. He introduced himself as Wolfgang, the Director of the Berlin Zoo. He was on a whirlwind tour of southeast Asia and his itinerary had already included a visit to Cuc Phuong. He seemed pleased that we were bringing Tilo animals and assured me that they would find a good home in his breeding program.
I drifted back along the cages, hoping for another clouded leopard. A piercing whistle stopped me dead. My feet followed my ears and I found myself once again looking into the unblinking yellow eyes of a serpent crested eagle. It was the same bird I had seen so many months ago, its wings still impossibly tattered and its tail a ratty stump. The cage was also the same, although the eagle had grown and now had a bald spot on its head where it rubbed endlessly against the top bars. It stared at me defiantly, then returned to tearing at a strip of beef held in its two-inch talons.
I sidled up to Wolfgang. "How would Tilo feel," I inquired casually, "about taking on an eagle?"
Wolfgang shrugged. "Ah Tilo, his heart is so big, he vill never say no."
Ten minutes later the eagle, in a substantially larger cage, was waiting to be transferred to my guesthouse room.
Jochen was back with the gibbon, his face clearly indicating his second thoughts about leaving it at the mercy of the marketplace. I pulled out some money.
An agitated wave swept through the stalls. It had no apparent origin but created a sudden burst of activity. Snoozing owners leapt to their feet and began plucking animals out of cages and removing bear galls from display cases. The proprietor snatched the gibbon out of Jochen's arms, popped it into a rattan bag and quickly lashed it to the back of an already departing motorbike. "Police!" she hissed at me and shoed us away from her stall. Within minutes the market had undergone a complete animal turnover, replacing toucans with sparrows, gibbons with dog-faced macaques and a long-tongued bear cub with a full grown porcupine.
The rumored raid never materialized. The market gradually settled down, like a flock of seagulls re-alighting after a passing shark. The gibbon proprietor bore down on me with murder in her eyes. "Your friend!" she hissed, "The old man! He from newspaper! Take pictures! Call in police!"
I tried to reassure her that Wolfgang had no connection with either the police or the local press but the damage was done. The injured gibbon had disappeared, hidden somewhere in the bowels of the city. The other seven infants were no longer "underway". I asked her when we could continue negotiations.
"Come back at four," she said, somewhat mollified by the thought of a future sale. "They be here for you then."
Caretaking up to seven gibbons, an eagle and four leopard kittens was more than our tiny guesthouse room could handle. We were determined to be on the evening train, to minimize the amount of time the vulnerable infants had to spend between the market and the breeding program. We split our forces once again, with Jochen gathering our gear while I headed for the train station to purchase tickets.
Jochen and I met at the animal market on the dot of four. Not a single gibbon had made the rendezvous. A full blown police raid had swept through an hour earlier and the market was in self-imposed lockdown. "Come back tomorrow," one of the stall owners said and waved us away. We huddled. Our train tickets had cost hundreds of dollars and the possibility of a refund was looking grim. In desperation we inquired after the injured gibbon, hidden somewhere in the city.
"Far away! One hundred kilometers," the woman said. "Come back tomorrow."
Tomorrow was too late. We sadly packed up our animals and left Saigon.