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Fed, Nursed, Guarded by British : Gibraltar Apes Rate Royal Treatment

June 19, 1988|LESLIE SHEPHERD | Associated Press

GIBRALTAR — For 25 years, Sgt. Alfred Holmes fed, nursed and guarded the famous Barbary apes that scramble among the upper crevices of the Rock of Gibraltar.

Legend has it that when these tailless monkeys leave Gibraltar, so will the British. And since the British take their legends very seriously, the animals enjoy the same tender, loving care as any of the 1,915 British soldiers on the rock.

Britain has ruled the colony on the southern tip of Spain since 1713, consistently rejecting Spain's claim to sovereignty. And the apes have become an adjunct to imperial statecraft.

When their population fell to seven during World War II, British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill ordered them augmented with Barbary apes captured in Morocco.

Painful Separation

Holmes, 57, has taken orphaned baby apes home to his wife and sick apes to the British naval hospital. With eye signals and barely perceptible head movements, he has disciplined the unruly and chided the greedy for ruining their teeth and waistlines on candy.

For the last 18 months since he retired as keeper of the apes, the former soldier has been unable to visit his wards, saying the wrench has been too painful.

"They are the treasures of Gibraltar," Holmes said of the animals he came to love as brothers and sisters. "This is the greatest treasure we have."

The Barbary apes are probably Gibraltar's best-known tourist attraction, and thousands of visitors a year line up to be photographed feeding them banana chunks.

Keeper of Apes

Since 1913, they have been the responsibility of the British army, which appoints one noncommissioned officer from the locally recruited Gibraltar Regiment as keeper of the apes.

The apes now number 67 and divide themselves into a wild pack, at the top of the 1,380-foot limestone rock, and a tamer pack, accustomed to posing and primping for pictures, adjacent to a drop-off point for the cable car.

They roam their well-defined territories at will, but gather punctually at meal time. They are fed at government expense, both for their own health and to discourage them from raiding the homes below.

Holmes said the apes soon learned that an imperceptible movement of his head meant they were to stop gobbling the candy or fruit offered by tourists.

Named for Officials

"They got used to looking at my own face and my movements, and that way they knew what I meant," he said.

Each ape is named at birth, he said, many in honor of brigadiers, colonels, government officials and their wives.

"They have medical treatment at the Royal Naval Hospital, exactly the same as the soldiers," Holmes said. "We have the same medical officers, surgeons. They use exactly the same medicines as they have through the Royal Navy."

The ape population is at its highest in more than a century, said Dr. Clive Finlayson, a biologist working for the government's Tourist Office. There's no further sign of the flu-like illness that killed three apes last summer and brought an army veterinarian out specially from Britain.

Used to Be Problem

"The last time there were 60-odd apes on the rock was 1885," said Finlayson, who is preparing a report on how to develop the upper rock as a nature reserve. "At the time . . . they were very much a problem.

"They used to roam the Admiralty Gardens and take a lot of figs."

Finlayson said many of the apes were shot, and in 1923 the government ordered the last six--all females--eliminated. The order was rescinded, he said, and males later had to be imported from Morocco to build up the stock.

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