Helen Arney – how to flirt with monkeys

Musical/geek comic Helen Arney (below with Matt Parker) writes about pulling some moves on a primate, on her trip to Edinburgh Zoo’s new research arm


Helen_Arney_Zoo1So far this Fringe I’ve spent five minutes each day singing about the weird world of animal reproduction in my solo show, Voice of an Angle. You might think that on my day off, I’d take a break from reading the hedgehog Kama Sutra and thinking about the pre-match snacking habits of the praying mantis?

Nope, because when you’re a full-time comedian and part-time science nerd, a day off at the Fringe means EXTRA RESEARCH TIME!

Yesterday I headed to Edinburgh Zoo, where the Scottish Primate Research Group has created space for about 60 capuchin and squirrel monkeys, to create the Living Links Centre. They’re not just looking at naughty monkey business. They research all kinds of behaviour, from finding out which toys monkeys like playing with (do they like the same ones as human babies?) to how they arrange their social groups (with or without Facebook? Ha! Trick question! They’re all on Twitter now.)

After having my photo taken with “My Primate Family Tree” – we humans hang out on a branch slightly to the right of gorillas, just under an orangutan – my guides for the day Mark and Alaina pointed out some of their favourite capuchins in the enclosure.

A large number of loud attention-seekers, competing for an audience with displays of prowess to gain status within their peer group? Sounds like a late-night bar at the Underbelly. I felt quite at home.

But the monkeys weren’t so comfortable with me. Our ever-patient photographer tried to get some shots of me pressed up against the observation glass, as if exchanging “how’s the show going?” niceties with a squirrel monkey. The results were disappointing. Even Kato, the friendliest of the capuchins, gave me the social equivalent of a one-star review and disappeared into the trees.

Handily, I’ve been researching animal behaviour for a while, and have learnt some genuine monkey flirting techniques for just this kind of situation.

Level 1: Raise your eyebrows. It’s the universal signal for getting any kind of primate’s attention. Although challenging for a glasses wearer like me, an Eric Morecambe-style wiggle usually does the job.

Level 2: Look away, and look back coquettishly. Swirl your long hair, if available. For inspiration, imagine a furry Camille O’Sullivan headbanging to Metallica.

These two went pretty well, and Kato popped over to strike a few poses against the window, so I thought it was time to step it up.

Level 3: Playing tap-and-run.

I tapped. Kato ran. And didn’t come back. That wasn’t supposed to happen. We abandoned the shoot. I was about to leave, and abandon my newfound monkey flirting skills, when another of the capuchins caught my eye. He held my gaze as he slowly, purposefully, peed on his hand. Splashing it liberally on himself, like a teenage boy’s first encounter with a bottle of Lynx, it flew around the enclosure like Edinburgh mist. Maybe he was marking his territory, perhaps cooling down, or trying to attract a mate? I’m not sure, but when some of it hit the glass right by my face I thought … You know what? I think I might be in here …

Helen Arney, Voice of an Angle, is on at 6.15pm at the Underbelly CowgateVisit the Living Links Centre at Edinburgh Zoowhere you can see the monkeys and live research.

Pic credit: Katie Paton/RZSS

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