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Tourist sexually assaulted, by monkeys?

I did have a laugh during last week’s French conversation class. A class which over the past year has morphed into an excuse for a leisurely coffee and catch-up, or to be sidetracked by the more bizarre things life throws up like: Can monkeys have the hots for humans?

I expect we’d been sitting in the sun for too long when the conversation reached this point. But I admit to being all ears when my girlfriend mentioned recent reports of a woman being agressée sexuellement (sexually assaulted) by a troop of monkeys while on holiday in Gibraltar. I switched to English, to be sure I had understood correctly.

Emmanuelle Titeux, a well-known Vétérinaire comportementaliste (behavioural vet), had been asked to give her opinion on the incident for the French journal L’Obs. Delighted that she had trumped me on the weirdest topic front, Emmanuelle passed me her phone showing the article, and its 46K views.

The story, sporting many outlandish hallmarks of a Daily Mail scoop, was about a British tourist, Melissa Hart, and her trip to see the island’s famous Barbary macaques. It seems either she, or her attire — the 23-year-old was wearing nothing more than a bikini and sandals — caught the cheeky apes’ attention.

This is what she told local reporters from the Olive Press: “I felt totally helpless as these two monkeys grabbed and pawed me in my most intimate areas. Then, with a yank, one of them pulled my bikini top straight off.”

Barbary macaques, Gilbratar: while not aggressive — attacking only if sensing danger — macaques are opportunistic thieves

Hart complained that no one had rushed to help her; the other tourists just stood around gawping and laughing. It was only when her loud screams alerted a nearby park warden that the mischievous duo were finally peeled off the poor girl.

Once in a safe location and properly dressed, she filed a police report for sexual assault against the hairy culprits…

By now, our conversation, peppered with Franglais and talk of whether inter-species sex was at all possible, had prompted several backward glances from others sipping espresso on the market square terraces.

Undeterred — I was dying to know whether there was any substance to Hart’s claim — I asked if the macaques could have been sexually attracted to this scantily-dressed woman? Humans are, after all, very close to primates when it comes down to our DNA (sharing as much as 97 per cent with chimpanzees).

Emmanuelle, in her forthright way, put me right: “Pas de tout” (Not at all), before wryly suggesting that this Brit-in-a-bikini wasn’t particularly easy-on-the-eye. Ouch. Joking aside though, she was convinced the monkeys viewed the bikini top, probably brightly coloured or patterned, as “a fun toy to be played with.” “You have to remember that these Barbary macaques, while they mingle with ease among humans, are essentially wild, and can be unpredictable.” While not aggressive — attacking only if sensing danger — they are opportunistic thieves.

A fact I discovered a few years back, when a long-tailed macaque entered our hotel room in Langkawi through an open window, accessed our mini-fridge, selected a Mars bar, gave us all a sweeping stare before casually exiting the way it came. I had to admire its audacity.

And the part about touching Hart’s “intimate areas”?

“What we humans define as ‘intimate’ areas of the body are not ‘intimate’ for monkeys,” Emmanuelle explained. Adding that the lady’s bosoms, not normally on view, would have undoubtedly piqued their curiosity.

It’s true that the behaviour of certain animals around humans might come across as sexual. For example, a dog thrusting or rubbing against the leg of its owner. But this does not mean the animal feels a sexual desire towards the human, it is simply frustrated and in need of a mate.

The mating season for these macaques does not start until the winter months, so sexual frustration was off the menu too.

The bottom line, Emmanuelle surmised with a wicked grin, was that these simian rascals were simply enjoying a game which became all the more interesting once Hart started screaming.

That’s not, of course, how Hart saw it. In her attempt to press charges the police said they were sorry for her ordeal, however, the monkeys could not be held criminally responsible. Animals cannot legally commit a crime.

But if they could, one of the police officers ventured: “Do you think you could pick out your attacker in a line-up?”

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