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The Netherlands: Comfort and joy at Apenheul primate park

A family gets an up-close look at monkeys, apes and more in an unforgettable visit to the city of Apeldoorn's major tourist draw.

October 06, 2013|By Cara Mia DiMassa

APELDOORN, NETHERLANDS — Dozens of black-and-yellow squirrel monkeys scampered around us, some running above on high ropes, others swooping in close to us as we walked.

This was one of the many delights of the Apenheul, a primate park in rural Netherlands where monkeys, apes and lemurs are allowed to run free.

The squirrel monkeys hopped easily onto the arms and shoulders of park visitors, who snapped pictures of the spectacle with cameras and phones. Our daughters, ages 4 and 8, squealed. Green-clad docents schooled them in proper primate behavior. (Keep your fists closed, for example, so the monkeys don't think you are about to feed them.)

Our daughters moved in closer, carefully approaching one group of monkeys that had gathered on a low wall. Annika, our older one, stuck out a bent arm toward one of them. She cooed and coaxed. After a few tries, the squirrel monkey tentatively climbed onto her arm, then stayed there contentedly. Annika beamed.

Planning a family visit to the Netherlands often centers on Amsterdam and will, most definitely, include challenges and counter-programming. Yes, there are spectacular museums, canal houses and the ghost of Anne Frank, but a visit with young children in tow requires vigilance in certain districts and coffee shops.

But travel 60 miles southeast of Amsterdam and you will be rewarded with family-friendly destinations. On a recent trip to the Netherlands, my husband, daughters and I found elaborate climbing structures and playgrounds awaiting us at many tourist destinations, including the phenomenal Burgers' Zoo outside of Arnhem and De Hoge Veluwe, the more-than-13,000-acre national park where a stable of bicycles provides the only form of transportation. "Pancake houses," where menus include a variety of scrumptious pannekoeken from savory to sweet, were ubiquitous in most cities and towns.

Our greatest pleasure came from our visit to the Apenheul, the product of one man's hobby-turned-folly that has become a major tourist draw for the city of Apeldoorn, which sits at the center of the Netherlands.

My husband's great-aunt, who has lived in the area for decades, had been anticipating our visit, and when we arrived at her apartment she took a handful of newspaper clippings from a cabinet, her printed argument that a trip to her city would be incomplete without a visit to the Apenheul.

We took her advice and were rewarded with memories and photographs for a lifetime.

Wim Mager, a Dutch photographer from Rotterdam, bought his first primates — two pygmy monkeys — from a pet store in the 1960s. After the monkeys had a baby and Mager started taking in stray primates, his collection blossomed.

In the late 1960s he began looking for space to house them and in 1971 founded the Apenheul on a half-acre of property in the middle of the Apeldoorn park known as Berg en Bos, or Mountain and Forest.

At first the Apenheul focused on South American primates, but as visitors began to stream in, the park expanded its list to include monkeys, apes and prosimians — primates such as lemurs and bush babies.

Apenheul can be translated as "ape consolation." The park's name stems from the fact that the apes give comfort to the humans who visit them — and vice versa.

Mager envisioned a big, green, natural property where people could encounter primates free of the bars and cages that were typical of most animal enclosures. Such a property, he believed, would allow the animals to enjoy themselves more. And when animals are having more fun, he suggested, visitors can have more fun, too.

The concept was simple but compelling. The park began to expand, growing its space and its list of primates. Today the park, open from late March through late October, hosts about a half-million visitors a year. Placards, maps and other materials were available in Dutch, English and German when we visited. Although we tried to use our limited Dutch at the Apenheul, we found English speakers everywhere, eager to help us as we fumbled along.

Guidance from the green-jacketed park docents started as soon as we stepped through the Apenheul's gates. We were encouraged to place all of our belongings in "monkey-proof" sacks, brightly colored messenger bags designed to keep curious primates out of our pockets and backpacks.

As we walked through the park, we felt as though we were circling the globe on a special kind of safari, spotting animals of all colors and sizes, many with behavior that seemed altogether familiar.

In the bonobo house, an indoor playground of rope, logs and baskets, a 2-year-old bonobo played what looked like a tickle game with two adults.

When a furry reddish creature crossed our path, we thought it looked like a combination of a raccoon and a possum — two animals that make frequent visits to our hillside neighborhood. A lemur, a nearby sign explained.

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