Abkhazia's Space Monkeys

In November 1998 a curious and at the same time unsettling article appeared on The Moscow Times. It was titled “Infected monkeys run wild in Abkhazia” and described the grisly story of bewildered foaming baboons attacking a local pensioner with sticks and rocks.

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As much as extraordinary it might sound this episode of simian violence was not the first of its kind in the region. Cases of marauding monkeys terrorizing the inhabitants of Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi have been reported since the end of the short but bloody conflict that hit the separatist region in 1992 and rumours of attacks against the unwary passer-by could still be heard in the late 00s. The beginnings of the bizarre tale of Abkhazia’s nightmarish primates lie in luxuriant hilltops surrounding the decaying Stalinist grandeur of Sukhumi’s city centre.

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Opened in 1927 the Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy was the first primate-testing centre in the world. Its pioneering medical and behavioural experiments set it at the forefront of revolutionary scientific discoveries such as the creation of a polio vaccine in 1961. In the frenzied years of the Space Race the institute became directly involved with the training of cosmonaut monkeys and six of the institute’s primates made it into the wild blue yonder. Then came perestroika and the disastrous dissolution of the USSR. The Abkhaz-Georgian conflict took a heavy toll on the institute and its inhabitants. Scientists left, wages were simply discontinued and most of the monkeys either died of cold and malnutrition or managed to escape and try their luck in the lush Abkhaz forests.

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Nowadays the institute is more prosaically known as the Monkey Colony and its cages have been slowly repopulated with sad-looking ill-nourished chimps and baboons. Past the decrepit entrance and surrounded by the crumbling buildings of abandoned laboratories a Soviet-era statue, a proud metal figure of a giant baboon, is the only reminder of the institute’s former glory. A bronze plaque lists the ground-breaking scientific achievements of the institutes. The last entry is from 1986.

More at http://gianlucapardelli.com/space-monkeys


Gianluca Pardelli