It was here that the vaccines for yellow fever and other terminal diseases got developed, where the first Soviet cosmonauts (they were marmosets) got their training, where the secret to eternal youth was being sought and, as the story goes, an attempt was once made to put the Darwinian theory to the ultimate test by cross-breeding humans with anthropoid apes. The USSR's collapse and the ensuing war between Georgia and Abkhazia nearly ruined the world-famous primate centre. Now however it seems to be coming back to life.
The primate centre stands on top of Mt Trapetsia not far from the heart of Sukhumi, the capital city of Abkhazia. The primate cages are situated in an expansive park, which has come to resemble a tropical forest in the 20 years of post-war desertion. Window glass is missing in some of the buildings, and the walls still bear bullet marks.
At the entrance to the centre stands guard a baboon statue, the only one of its kind in the world as the locals insist. In the warm summer months the primate centre serves as a key tourist attraction of Sukhumi. During the rest of the year it is a research facility.
The centre's workings have always been veiled in secrecy. When Perestroyka came, the press was suddenly full of sensationalist stories alleging that the centre had attempted to cross-breed apes and humans, or produce virility boosters from primate hormone extracts for use by Politburo members. There were rumours of "universal soldiers" with human appearance and primate health of a primate. The truth got properly adulterated with urban legends.
What is patently known though is that the primate centre was involved in radiation protection tests and worked to create vaccines for polio, yellow fever, typhoid and smallpox.
"In the late 1950s this was a biological research station of [then-]Moscow-based All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine," says Prof Zinaida Shevtsova, who has worked at the primate centre for more than 50 years. "In 1961 the station was transformed into an independent research institute for experimental pathology and therapy. I happened to be among its first intake of young specialists, and was tasked with creating a virology lab. My job involved discovering new viruses. I researched haemorrhagic fever in primates and sought to identify causes of cancer. I also created a model of the Hepatitis A virus and invented a vaccine for Botkin's disease. Now we are researching pertussis and have been modelling it in primates. I also mentor students. My student times fell to the Stalin rule. Everyone tried to study well back then; nowadays the students are much lazier. Come in you underachievers!"
Several young female students with notebooks pile into the professor's office. These are the new generation of specialists at the centre. In the past few decades, young people did not particularly fancy working here: a lab assistant's monthly salary is just $100, one can earn much more just selling fruit from a market stall. Now however, the young generation's interest in science is gradually reviving.
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In the Soviet times, employment at the primate centre was a token of prestige. It was here that the first Soviet primate cosmonauts were trained. Six of them subsequently flew into orbit and safely returned to Earth.
In the 1970s the centre staged an interesting experiment: 60 baboons were set free near the Inguri hydroelectric dam to see if they would survive in the northern latitudes. The primates did well in the mild Black Sea climate; the centre left food in the open for them. Not long before the USSR's disintegration there were already some 600 wild baboons in Abkhazia. But then the Georgia-Abkhazia war broke out and the centre's financial standing deteriorated. There was little fodder to go around even for the captive animals, let alone for the wild ones.
Today the centre keeps just under 500 primates and is again involved in research programmes. Representatives of Russian pharmaceutical firms come to Sukhumi to test their new medicines and vaccines. Tourists sponsor the keeping of the animals by buying entrance tickets and feeding the primates tangerines that can be bought at the gate.
The Sukhumi primate centre runs animal exchange programmes with several long-term partners. The Adler centre, for example, took the Sukhumi archive and some of the animals for safekeeping before the war. There is also a private zoo in Gagra run by a photographer who makes serious money charging for photos of tourists with his monkeys on the beach. Only young specimens can be used in this kind of business: adult primates are too aggressive and dangerous. As the monkeys grow up the owner donates them to the Sukhumi centre.
The centre itself sometimes trusts its employees with bringing up baby monkeys at home. This typically happens when the mother cannot or does not want to care for her child. These kids have to be teat-fed until they are big enough.
Attendant Aunt Tanya is bringing up one such new-born baboon girl. She does not get any extra pay or days off work for this, although she does ask the administration jokingly for maternity leave since the baby, which is dressed in a pink cardigan, needs to be fed every two hours around the clock, even at night.
Every morning Aunt Tanya is in the canteen preparing the animals' fodder for the day: 310 kg of fruit and vegetables (cabbage, potatoes, carrots, oranges, apples and babanas), 175 loaves of bread and 460 eggs. Also, several cartons of feed concentrates and a huge pot of barley porridge with butter, milk, sugar and salt.
The menu is compiled by animal technologist Esma Symsym. She read horse husbandry at a Moscow institute of zoology engineering but ended up caring for the primates. Esma has loved animals since childhood. She keeps around a dozen foundling cats and dogs at home. About the same number of stray four-legged fellows turn up at the primate centre at feeding time in hope that some leftovers from the monkey feast will come their way.
"The first few years after the war were especially hard," Esma says. "There were fodder shortages. Now the situation has improved. Yet the cages are old and crumped. We cannot always keep our primates in individual cages to stop them fighting. We have to take babies home sometimes so their mothers cannot bite them to death. Adults also need to be constantly kept in check."
The primate community lives according to its own rules. The alpha males grumble and take food away from the males of lesser rank; the females scheme and pinch at rivals. The babies complain to their parents about the visitors, jump through puddles and steal spectacles from short-sighted guests who happen to wander too close to the cage. Nobody is going to space anymore, and the chances of ever cross-breeding with humans are also gone. Their present consists of medicine tests, boring tangerines and the occasional tabloid journo out to tell yet another "true story" about the Communist human-ape.