Clinic Stories

Alcoholism in Gibbons

While visiting Thailand, I wanted to see the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Phuket. Finding it was a chore, none of the cabbies knew of it and I finally had to call the center to give the driver directions. I joked that as a rehabilitation center they treat drug-and-alcohol-dependent Gibbons. Unfortunately, they do exist. Here is how that comes about.

Gibbons are small apes that live in the jungle canopy of Southeast Asia swinging through the branches and making loud whooping noises that can be heard for miles. They have adorable infant-like babies that dependently cling to people. Despite international laws protecting them, there is a trade in baby Gibbons posing with tourists for a fee. To get a baby Gibbon, poachers follow their sounds and shoot the mother. Because the baby is often killed as they fall, five Gibbons die to get one baby. Their diet is mostly fruits and insects but the captive Gibbons lead a party life, hanging around resorts and bars. They are often given recreational drugs and alcohol and some become addicted. Occasionally they become infected with HIV.

As the babies grow they lose their commercial value and many make their way to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. Acclimating them back onto a jungle diet and life takes eight to ten years and is often unsuccessful. They know that humans are a source of food and liquor and seek them out. Those that cannot go back to the jungle are kept in captivity in zoos or preserves. Their offspring are sometimes then returned to the wild.

When I visited the center I brought pictures of people with baby Gibbons and reported the information in a registry kept for that reason. The police go to those locations and confiscate the Gibbons before they are too far gone.

When I was a veterinary student I had an older Gibbon as a patient that was kept as a pet (it was legal then) and was used in commercials. The owners fed him a human meat-based diet and he was hospitalized with pancreatitis. Once he was discharged , they ignored the advice to put him on a fruit diet and took him directly to McDonald's for a meal. He was back in intensive care two days later.

Being cute and loud has worked against the Gibbons.

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