Antipode: Chapter 9

Cute, Furry, Desperate and Alone

At dusk on our first day on Nosy Mangabe, as I returned barefoot from showering at the waterfall, Lebon called to me from the steps of the conservation agents’ cabin. He was picking through rice, culling the stones from it.

“Close the lab,” he suggested. “At this time of night, the lemurs sometimes try to steal things.” As he said this, a female brown lemur, Lemur fulvus, the most widespread of the non-human primates on Madagascar, scampered by on the ground. She made what I took to be a playful swipe in the general direction of my leg. I laughed, made noises at the animal to discourage her from getting any friendlier, and continued on toward the lab. There is a troop of brown lemurs resident in the camp area at Nosy Mangabe, and I took this animal to be one of them.

The next evening, as I again returned from the waterfall at dusk, the same lemur ran by my feet, grabbing at them but missing. The lemur also made a swipe at Jessica as she left the lab, and she responded as I had, shouting at the animal, unconcernedly, but to dissuade, so as not to get her in the habit of such behavior. We never saw the lemur approach Lebon or Fortune this way, and they said nothing further to us about her. We were not even certain that it was a single lemur who was so playful, but perhaps several females in the resident troop who were a bit aggressive.

On the third day, I rose at five, dressed for the field on my tent platform, and took my toothbrush and paste to the place where the small stream pools, where we wash dishes and clean our faces and teeth. I sat on a rock and bent down, splashing water onto my face. Dawn is a meditative time on Nosy Mangabe, still cool and subdued. The nighttime frog song is dissipating, the squabbles of diurnal lemurs and insects have not yet begun, and the understory is tinged a deep blue. My mind floated easily in this place so far from home, as I casually planned the day’s work.

Searing pain suddenly enveloped my left arm. The female lemur raced by me, not two feet from my face, up to my right, where she perched in bamboo, eight feet away. I stood abruptly, uncomprehending. She made another movement in my direction, and as I picked up a rock to throw at the beast who bit me, I felt the blood flowing down my arm. Twisting to look at my wound, I was horrified to find a deep open gash, looking more like a knife wound than an animal bite. The muscle, my triceps, was exposed, bubbling out of the wound, and bleeding profusely. Before I could internalize this, the lemur was coming at me again, on the ground, across the rocks. I kicked at her, and yelled, and she retreated. Hurriedly, confused, I splashed my arm with cold, clean water, and picked up my things. Walking slowly back to the lab, I couldn’t think, didn’t grasp how this fit into any bigger picture, refused to comprehend how bad it might be. I called to Jessica, told her I’d been bitten by a lemur, and showed her my arm. She was horrified by the wound. My fears were validated. I had indeed been ripped open by a wild animal, unprovoked. The wound would surely demand stitches; the behavior, an explanation.

I was dazed. The wound was open to the air, attracting the biting flies which pervade the forest during daylight hours. I slathered it in iodine and Neosporin, but this didn’t provide much of a barrier to the outside world.

“Can you stitch me?” I asked Jessica. She was pallid. She had never had stitches herself, had never even seen them. Despite this, I believed, naively, that she could sew me up without much trauma to either of us. Before proceeding, we got Lebon’s attention. He was just waking up, preparing to rake the camp, the one job that was done every day. He was suitably appalled with the situation.

“Do you know how to give stitches?” I asked him.

“Ah, stitches are very difficult, I think.” This was his polite way of saying “I can’t do that.” I had failed to include sutures in my medical kit, but I did have a set of sewing needles, including a thick, curved mattress needle. I appointed myself on a wobbly bamboo bench, held my arm over my head so Jessica could access the bite, asked Lebon to hold my wound closed as best he could, and told Jessica to puncture my arm with the mattress needle. After about two minutes of this, the needle was halfway embedded in my arm, no stitch was yet apparent, and all three of us were shaking. I suggested, much to the relief of Jessica and Lebon, that we abandon the plan.

“I’ll need to see a doctor,” I told Lebon. He would have to radio Maroantsetra to arrange for a boat to come pick me up. He looked alarmed.

“No need for that. Earlier someone was bit on the foot by the same lemur, but it was not bad, so you will also be better soon.” I was feeling unsure of my judgment, but did think I needed to get to a doctor. I waited for him to expand on his position.

“Perhaps,” he continued, “you should just sit here, wait for a few days, and see what happens.” He and Fortune were already demonstrating expertise at sitting around and waiting to see what happened, but I was not of a mind to follow suit. I did, after all, have a gaping hole in my arm, possibly inflicted by a sick animal. By this time my thoughts had turned to rabies, then to other infections, like gangrene, and all the possible nasty things that can happen as a result of a deep animal bite in a persistently hot, wet place.

“No, I must see a doctor. Now.” My mind was growing more confused, but I could repeat myself with some success.

“But it’s only six in the morning, and I cannot use the radio until eight, because nobody is on the other end until then,” Lebon argued. Even then, there was a chance that the communication wouldn’t be possible, as the radio was frequently low on batteries or shorting out.

“Okay, I’ll come back in two hours.” I started myself on a course of antibiotics, and retreated to the dock to lie down and consider my fate. My arm throbbed, and my thoughts raced, then flitted, from one incoherence to the next. Why would a wild animal attack a person, unless it was rabid? How did Lebon know that this was the same lemur that previously bit someone else? Could I go home now?

After two hours of this, I stood up, light headed, already imagining every ache as the beginning of the end. I staggered the thirty feet back to camp, and asked Lebon to radio Maroantsetra.

“Why?” He looked genuinely confused. I repeated my plan to go see a doctor.

“But,” he warned, “the park boat is not in town, so you will have to hire a private boat, which will be expensive.” The Projet Masoala motorboat was on the other side of the peninsula. There are only two other boats for hire in the area, and they are, as he said, quite expensive. For Madagascar. Even if they had been expensive by American standards, it hardly seemed relevant. I wasn’t going to risk my arm, perhaps my life, to save a few dollars. Finally I persuaded him that I was going to town, with his help or not. He radioed, and arranged for a private boat to come out and get me immediately. He was outraged at the price they would charge me for the three mile trip—the equivalent of $25 in Malagasy francs—and tried, again, to dissuade me. He knew I was being robbed. But he had no idea how little that mattered. The economies we live in are too different for Lebon to comprehend. I spent on a single boat ride what he and his family might spend on life in a month.

Jessica and I got to town as it was turning into a steamy, swooning day. Nosy Mangabe is always cooler than town. The forest, long gone from Maroantsetra, helps insulate against heat on Nosy Mangabe, water surrounds the small land mass, and the waterfall is always there, beckoning. Maroantsetra, by comparison, is hot and dusty, cramped with people.

In town, Clarice’s compassionate nature came through, and she took us to a man I came to refer to as the good doctor. The good doctor’s French was easily understandable, even by me, but it was a relief to have Jessica there for translation help just in case. He worked in a small, cool building with bamboo walls and a thatched roof, and his manner was professional but amused. I watched carefully as he poured alcohol over all the tools he would use on me, then set them on fire to sterilize them. I carry my own sterile syringes in the field, but not a complete doctor’s kit, and there is always the fear of disease. AIDS is not formally recognized as a problem by the Malagasy government, but it is surely there.

Once the good doctor anesthetized my arm and had me lying helpless on his examining table, he began extolling the virtues of lemurs.

“Lemurs, you know, are smart and funny, quite clever, and beautiful, too.” I gaped at him, asked Jessica for a translation just in case I had got it wrong. I hadn’t. He continued, “They don’t usually do this sort of thing. You mustn’t hate lemurs because of this.”

“I love animals, that’s why I’m here in Madagascar,” I paused. This was true, but incomplete. “But I’d like to have this particular lemur for lunch.” He laughed. “Oh no, we can’t eat lemurs. Some people do, of course, but it’s not right…” he trailed off.

“I don’t want to make a habit of it, you understand, just this particular one.” I wasn’t making myself clear. Having a lemur for lunch may have been the wrong way to convey that thought. I asked Jessica to step in and help me. The doctor seemed relieved with her explanation.

“Oh, yes, that particular lemur. What were you doing to provoke her? Did you try to pet her?” The good doctor was beginning to get to me. Did I try to pet her? A wild animal? Did I look mad? Was the rabies manifesting already?

“No, I was only sitting at the stream, brushing my teeth.”

“Ah, they love toothpaste. She probably wanted your toothpaste.” I cast a glance at Jessica, who is expert at looking simultaneously bemused with and removed from a situation. She was doing it now.

“Lemurs like toothpaste?” I was incredulous.

To find out what happened to the lemur, and to my arm, check out Antipode in its entirety…