A few months ago, I succumbed to the fantasy of a virtuously decluttered house and attempted to clean out my overstuffed abode. While sorting through a pile of ancient files—reading lots and throwing away little—I unearthed a story I’d written while I was a graduate student at the University of Texas in 1975. The accompanying photograph instantly whisked me back almost fifty years.

It was a crisp, almost chilly day in early fall in South Texas in those prelapsarian times when we Texans regularly had crisp days in early fall. My group was seated on the dry, sandy dirt of the La Moca Ranch near Encinal, about thirty miles north of the Mexican border. The smell of skirt steak being grilled for fajitas by the cowboys who’d raised the steer was making my mouth water. Scrubby mesquite trees, spiky agave, and a few big-eared prickly pear cacti dotted the barren landscape. Also, I was holding a drugged snow monkey from Japan in my lap.

Her name was Pelka. She was ten years old and recently had a baby. I was at La Moca reporting on a story for the Daily Texan about the first-ever roundup of a troop of macaques that had been transplanted in 1972 from their sanctuary in the snowy, pine-shaded peaks of Stormy Mountain (Arashiyama in Japanese), outside of Kyoto, to the most unlikely of places: this sun-strobed ranch near Laredo. Pelka and I were surrounded by volunteers with laps full of sleepy monkeys. A couple dozen of the 176 resident macaques had been captured and tranquilized so that researchers could examine, inoculate, and tattoo them. We were keeping our charges safe until they had recovered enough to be released back into the electric-fenced, 108-acre enclosure, where the rest of the troop roamed freely.

With watermelon-hued faces haloed by tawny fur, the Macaca fuscata is the only primate besides man that can endure extreme cold. Although the average lifespan of a snow monkey in the wild is 6.3 years, some have been known to live as long as 32 years. They stand around two feet tall when they rear up bipedally; males typically weigh about 25 pounds and females 18. So cherished were these primates by the Japanese that, in 1947, they became a protected species.

I’d photographed ten-year-old Pelka before the roundup as she’d nursed her baby daughter while being groomed by an underling. Now lolling in my arms, Pelka herself felt like a bony, long-limbed toddler. The silver-furred beauty was so doped up she allowed me to breach a fundamental macaque taboo and gaze into the unearthly hazel depths of her eyes. I tried to communicate that she was safe with me. That I would protect her. That I understood; I too had been an involuntary immigrant to Texas. The three happiest years of my Air Force brat childhood had been spent at Yokota Air Base, in the suburbs of western Tokyo, where I could see Mount Fuji from the backyard of our tiny house. Japan could enchant any child, and enchanted I was. By the people, by the smell of honeysuckle that perfumed the air, by eating with lacquered sticks, by kawaii (the rampant culture of cuteness), and by the fairy tales—especially the many stories that centered on that most kawaii of all animals, Japan’s beloved trickster, the snow monkey. I dreamed of petting one. 

And then, like Pelka, my family was rudely transplanted from the Land of the Rising Sun to the Land of the Roasting Sun. I never expected to encounter snow monkeys again. When I ended up at UT and heard about this roundup of Japanese macaques, naturally I rushed to volunteer. And now, on a patch of dry, sandy rangeland, my childhood dream was coming true.

My Search for the Snow Monkeys of South Texas
Sally Manly, researcher in residence, helps with feeding at La Moca in 1975. Sarah Bird
My Search for the Snow Monkeys of South Texas
Pelka65 nurses her baby Pelka6575 while being groomed by a subordinate female. Sarah Bird

The curious odyssey that catapulted the troop from the snowy heights of Japan’s Stormy Mountain to a ranch in far South Texas began in 1953, when Japanese primatologists started laying out wheat and apples to lure the free-roaming band close enough to be observed. For the first time, researchers could identify troop members and track them throughout their lives. Exciting findings about our primate relatives followed: how macaques learn, how they resolve conflicts, and how, in this matriarchal society, every troop member’s identity is determined by the status of the mother. In what would become a sad pattern, however, the monkeys proved too adaptable. By 1966, the population of the band on Stormy Mountain had exploded. Fully accustomed to and unafraid of humans, a breakaway troop took to raiding gardens, stealing laundry, and, most unforgivable of all, pooping in Buddhist temples, where they would sleep in the rafters.

The national treasures had become public nuisances. Unless a new home was found, the 150 rogue monkeys would become candidates for either lab studies or the dissection table. When no takers could be found in Japan, a five-alarm alert went up throughout the international community to save these members of the only group of primates whose behavior and matrilineal lines had been studied for over a decade. For six years, scientists around the globe searched for a safe home for the endangered monkeys.

Among them was a professor of anthropology at UT, Claud A. Bramblett, who advocated so vigorously on the monkeys’ behalf that even his undergrad students heard of their plight. One such student, Helen Dryden, carried the tale back to her father, E. J. Dryden, a Laredo attorney, rancher, and land developer. When E. J. called Bramblett to inquire how many animals he could raise on one hundred or so acres of his land and if, once the troop was firmly established, the surplus monkeys could be sold, Bramblett knew salvation was at hand.

According to Dryden family legend, the Japanese Air Force secretly flew the monkeys to Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, to avoid protests from Japanese citizens upset by the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Other reports maintain that the 150 displaced monkeys made the 26-hour flight via Japan Airlines and the Arizona Air National Guard. Whatever the mode of transport, the travelers arrived on February 2, 1972, at their new home, Arashiyama West.

They might as well have landed on the moon for all the resemblance the 108 acres of flat, arid brushland bore to their native country. In place of the piney, snow-capped retreats where they’d foraged for nuts, wild plants, and mushrooms, they now faced a hostile landscape weaponized with thorny mesquite, prickly cactus, and coyotillo, the last defended with both sword barbs and poisonous berries. Back in Japan, they might have encountered the rare wolf or feral dog. Out on the lone prairie, the monkeys now had to confront mobs of predators: bobcats, coyotes, hawks, owls, rattlesnakes, and screwworms.

A cold winter and a lot of insecticide took care of the screwworms. The coyotillo, rattlers, birds of prey, and bobcats were another story. After a period of mutual puzzlement, the bobcats discovered the food value of a Japanese macaque and abducted three infants. Human intervention via a shotgun neutralized that threat. Following the deaths of several of their compatriots from snake bites, the troop, in a remarkable example of adaptation, developed a special alarm call for the slithering threat. No further rattler deaths were recorded.

I didn’t hear any rattlesnake alerts the day of the roundup, but I did catch the sound of a boisterous round of feeding calls. It was almost noon, time for the arrival of buckets filled with corn and range cubes that supplemented the troop’s desert fare. The monkeys’ anticipatory food calls started half an hour before feeding time and gradually rose to a crescendo that sounded like a hundred-plus old-fashioned baby dolls crying out with a baleful wha-a-a-a. Suddenly the cries stopped, replaced by the crunch of powerful jaws on hard kernels as percussive as the staccato patter of hail on a tin roof. It was this sound that roused Pelka, who struggled to her feet, left the safety of my lap, and wobbled away, her pink rump waving a woozy goodbye. I missed her immediately.

Though that was my last glimpse of Pelka, the snow monkeys of South Texas remained an odd and unexpected force in my life. In 1980, when my life as a freelance journalist was listing dangerously into the “free” direction, I discovered a booming phenomenon to help me pay my rent: romance novels.

Thanks to Pelka and her buddies, I had a thoroughly researched story ready to go: fetching young primatologist is studying the behavior of a troop of Japanese macaques transplanted to, oh, let’s say, a ranch near Laredo. All I had to do was remove every scrap of the aforementioned research, add a handsome rancher, make her eyes cornflower blue, his shoulders broad, and translate the whole thing into romancespeak. Like the four other scorchers I would write under my nom de whoopee, Tory Cates, the book, Different Dreams, helped finance the writing I truly cared about.

The next time my life intersected with the snow monkeys was in the early nineties. I’d adapted my second novel, The Boyfriend School, for the screen and was swept up in what became known as the “spec boom,” a time when Hollywood was madly buying up scripts written on speculation and flying writers in for the sacred ritual of “taking meetings.” For more than a decade, I had a grand time plunging from one project to the next. But the one I most yearned to be selected for told the true story of Birutė Galdikas, an animal behaviorist who’d ventured into the wilds of Borneo to study orangutans and, after marrying a Dayak tribesman, essentially never returned. I met with an array of producers and execs, but their listless, lagging interest did not sharpen until I pulled out the article I’d written about Pelka and the snow monkeys of South Texas. Suddenly, I zoomed ahead of all the other candidates who had, apparently, never cradled a nonhuman primate in their laps. Hollywood really is all about connections.

I wrote the script. ABC and Isabella Rossellini, a devoted animal lover, signed on, and ABC organized a “research trip for the writer”—which is how I ended up spending two weeks in Borneo with Rossellini. In the end, though, as with most film projects, this one was scrapped.

With my own small primate boy child to raise and many novels to write, I lost track of the snow monkeys until 1996, when a friend mentioned that Wayne Newton had headlined a fundraiser for the animals at the Majestic Theatre, in San Antonio. Wayne Newton? What had caused Mr. Las Vegas to intercede on the troop’s behalf?

It turns out that around the same time that I was starving as a freelancer, the troop of monkeys was being uprooted again. Although E. J. Dryden had died just a year after the macaques arrived in Texas, they lived on his ranch until 1980, when the estate was put up for sale. A new home was needed, and once again, UT’s Bramblett came to their aid, this time with the help of another anthropology student, Lou Griffin. Bramblett and Griffin, a doctoral candidate, reorganized the center as a nonprofit, allowing E. J. Dryden’s widow to take a tax write-off when she donated her late husband’s whimsical acquisition—now numbering three hundred—to the pair.

Griffin persuaded her in-laws at the time, the owners of the Burns Ranch near Dilley, about an hour southwest of San Antonio, to set aside one hundred acres of their vast spread. The new site was christened the South Texas Primate Observatory. There, under Griffin’s care, the troop continued to thrive.

That is, until January 21, 1996, when three monkeys—Missy, Lilly, and Meggy, two nursing mothers and a friend—were shot dead. “Blowed apart,” the game warden told the Austin Chronicle. The culprits were hunters who had lured them a few feet outside the observatory’s fence line with deer corn. A fourth macaque, Jason, came out of it alive but with a stump for an arm.

The news stunned me. I’d believed that the monkeys were safe, protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Until 1994, they had been. In June of that year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife ruled that this particular troop of macaques was no longer a protected species, and, by the opening of the 1995–1996 hunting season, Japanese macaques were perceived as fair game. The four victims, descendants of immigrants from a snowy land on the other side of the globe, had survived rattlesnakes, screwworms, and crushing heat only to be gunned down for crossing a fence line in Texas.

Again a five-alarm alert was raised. This time it went out not just to primatologists, but to animal lovers around the country. Among those who heeded the call was Newton, who choppered in to perform a benefit concert that raised $40,000. The money was used to help purchase a more secure permanent home for the troop, a few miles off I-35, outside of Millett.

Convinced that Pelka’s descendants and the rest of the troop were safe, I didn’t give them much thought again until I came across my crumbling trove of ancient clippings. Overwhelmed by the sight of Pelka’s sweet face, I wondered anew what had become of the troop. Given that the average macaque lifespan is less than 25 years, I held no hope of finding the monkey I’d had so much in common with. Still, if her daughter, or any of her descendants, had survived, they would be known, since the matrilineal lines of all the Arashiyama monkeys were recorded.

The one person who could answer my question was their steadfast guardian, Lou Griffin. If I could locate her. The first clue I came across was a 1988 Texas Country Reporter video.

My Search for the Snow Monkeys of South Texas
A male macaque at La Moca in 1975. Sarah Bird
My Search for the Snow Monkeys of South Texas
Lou Griffin delivers food to a couple of vervet monkeys released from a University of Texas lab at Burns Ranch in 1984. The pair were part of the small group of primates—former pets and lab subjects—that Griffin adopted. Courtesy of Lou Griffin

“I ‘m just a caretaker,” Griffin, dressed in overalls with the younger of her two towheaded daughters strapped into a carrier on her back, says in the footage as she hauls bags of range cubes and grain into the bed of her pickup. In this clip from the happier days of the South Texas Primate Observatory, she’s preparing for the noon feeding of the snow monkeys.

A vibrantly appealing, down-to-earth woman, Griffin was perfectly cast to be the Texas Jane Goodall. “We don’t want to fit into monkey society,” she continues. “We observe enough as anthropologists to know the rules, so that we don’t break the rules. But basically the entire focus of what we do is to not intervene.” Under her management, the monkeys were larger, healthier, stronger, and more fertile than their kinfolk back in Japan. Visiting researchers and students from Canada, Japan, and throughout the U.S. continued to make new discoveries.

In 1991, The Monkeys of Arashiyama: Thirty-Five Years of Research in Japan and the West was published. This landmark compilation of studies covered topics such as the monkeys’ stunning adaptation to Texas, the mysteries of their hierarchical world, and the surprising importance of the mother’s rank. And none of it could have been written without the decades of data provided by researchers who’d been allowed to live and work on-site. In addition to publishing her own work, Griffin contributed to one of the fifteen papers, writing about the effects of age and rank on female monkeys.

Other footage of her that I find includes a 1997 National Geographic film documenting how she had supervised the move of the monkeys to the more secure enclosure in Millett. It describes how primatologists and students from around the world would continue their observations and every animal would be known, its genealogy traced back to Japan.

After several false leads, I finally track Griffin down, and she agrees to meet me for breakfast at the Whataburger in Lytle, about 25 miles southwest of San Antonio. I’m early. Griffin is earlier. Already seated in a booth at the back where the Whataburger merges into a mini H-E-B, she’s wearing a T-shirt festooned with quails, shorts, a pair of powder-blue Crocs, and a safari-like boonie hat. I take a moment to study the woman I’d seen on that Texas Country Reporter video bouncing in and out of the bed of a pickup with a toddler strapped on her back. She is now 74, and age has taken its toll. Unchanged, though, are her eyes. Fishbowled behind oversized rimless glasses, they are as bright and inquisitive as they had been all those years ago.

Though I immediately want to ask about Pelka and her descendants, I hold my tongue. For, as I will soon learn, Griffin’s and Pelka’s stories are inextricably intertwined.

I bond with Griffin, the daughter of an Army doctor, over our nomadic military childhoods. After a lifetime of constant moving, her family finally settled in San Antonio, and in 1969 she began attending UT. “I was blessed that I had a class with Dr. Bramblett,” she tells me. “I just knew that I was going to be a physical anthropologist.” Following her graduation, in 1970, Griffin married an Army lieutenant, and the young couple was transferred to Germany for a three-year assignment.

During Griffin’s absence, the snow monkeys arrived in Texas. When she returned to Austin, in 1973, to continue her graduate studies, Griffin joined the cadre of budding primatologists conducting field studies on Dryden’s La Moca ranch. These students would visit the site to complete field research for their doctorates. “But that’s not what I did,” Griffin says. “I stayed, so I never did get my PhD.”

Half a century later, though, Griffin is in the process of finishing that degree at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I ask why.

Griffin leaves her breakfast sandwich sitting untouched as she considers her answer. “A few years ago, I decided there was a story I would like to tell—if I’m strong enough to tell it—about the animals and all the amazing things they did. And none of that’s really been documented.”

I mention the National Geographic film. Shouldn’t the move to the new, more secure site in Millett in 1997 have been the happy ending she’d worked toward for decades? Instead, a somber, wounded expression clouds Griffin’s animated features.

Hesitantly, Griffin explains that the trickle of funds the observatory had been able to raise dried up shortly after the move. She and her team had a new facility but no money for operating expenses and no expertise in fundraising. “We were a bunch of academics,” she explains with a wry laugh. So, in 1999, the Animal Protection Institute, a national nonprofit that, among other causes, worked with state lawmakers to pass legislation restricting the ownership of exotic animals, took over the site, which was renamed the API Primate Sanctuary. “It was a complex process,” Griffin recalls. “And all our board and the attorneys said, ‘It’s perfect.’ ’’

She stayed on as director and was hopeful at first. API was pumping much-needed money and resources into the complex. But then the research completely stopped, she says. In 2002, in a move that stunned many in the primate world, Griffin was fired. Not long after, she was also arrested on charges of trespassing on the property and briefly jailed. It was a shocking turn for experts in the field, many of whom came to her defense. “We got a lot of letters from people who were upset,” Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, told the San Antonio Express-News at the time. “She was a legendary figure, and lots of people know her and respect her.”

The charges were dropped, but it was a massive blow. After decades of devoting her life to the care of these animals, the world Griffin had known was suddenly gone. “It was my life,” Griffin explains, her voice quivering. “It was my entire life, literally. I don’t want to start crying, although I might. I might.”

The tears that Griffin shed for a twenty-year-old loss are magnified by her large glasses. “It was everything that I valued, what I thought was important, because there weren’t any other examples of primates that had been successfully transplanted. And so then I felt devastated because I’d let everybody in Japan down. I’d let everybody down.”

With two children to support, Griffin went to work for the local school system. A bout with long COVID-19 has recently slowed work toward her doctorate. To this day, the pain of her exile remains so acute that she cut all ties with the troop and knows almost nothing about the current management.

She hasn’t met the new leadership at the Millett property that took over in 2007, the Born Free Foundation. Created by the two British actors who starred in the 1966 hit film Born Free, the nonprofit merged with API and took over the primate facility, which is now known as the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary.

I am dismayed to learn that Griffin has had no contact with the troop in over two decades. Fearing that my search for clues as to what happened to Pelka and her offspring is about to end at the Lytle Whataburger, I finally ask if it might be possible that any of Pelka’s descendants have survived.

To my surprise, Griffin answers emphatically, “Absolutely there should be descendants.”

“How can you be so certain?” I wonder.

Her answer stuns me: It was Pelka’s family that Griffin had studied for a 1989 paper that was cited in the most recent compilation of research. What she’d learned about them made her sure that if any line had survived, it would have been Pelka’s. “Pelka was from a fairly low-ranking family, but—not to use words that are too anthropomorphic—a very clever family,” she tells me.

Clever, yes. I always knew that my girl was clever.

Though Pelka had lived to the very ripe old age of 23, the story Griffin recounts was about her daughter, Pelka 6575, named in the Japanese manner, for her mother’s birth year and her own.

“Pelka 6575,” Griffin says, “decided that she was tired of putting up with all the—this is my interpretation—all the guff of these high-ranking females that were always making her move out of the shade and eat after them, and she decided to start her own troop. So she had to work politically very hard to get her little group together before she could fission off.” As with any diligent scientist who’s uncovered some marvelous pattern, Griffin’s excitement mounts as she recounts Pelka 6575’s astute maneuvering to build a coalition of mutineers who did finally break away and start their own sub-group. “They’re amazingly political animals,” she notes.

I am delighted to learn that my girl was the founding matriarch—the primogenetrix, as one scientific article put it—of the Pelka 65 line and the mother of a rebel leader who led a downtrodden group to a better life.

Yes, I agree with Griffin, if any of the monkey’s descendants had survived, it would have been Pelka’s. My outlook brightens considerably. Although the Born Free Sanctuary is closed to the public, it has agreed to let me visit. It’s the next—and undoubtedly final—stop on my search.

I drive a few miles south through the brief miracle of a usually parched landscape, now wearing a luscious green party dress to celebrate the recent flooding. When I turn off I-35 onto the rain-gullied red-dirt road that leads to the sanctuary, I take a moment to consider the ways that the ground has shifted beneath Griffin’s feet in the past forty years. She’d entered primatology at a time when a young woman armed with nothing more than a pair of binoculars and a clipboard could go into the wilds of Tanzania or Rwanda, Borneo, or South Texas and return with observations that would change everything we knew about our primate kin.

In the intervening decades, however, as those wilds began to disappear, we all had a little rethink about the multitudinous ways in which we as a species have flubbed up our dominion of the Earth and all her creatures thereupon. We began to call pets our animal companions. In November 2018 a writ of habeas corpus was filed on behalf of an elephant named Happy that petitioned for her release from the Bronx Zoo. If Happy had prevailed, she would, in essence, have been granted personhood.

Where, then, within this schema of our evolving consciousness about animal rights, did Pelka and her troopmates fit? I wonder if bringing the snow monkeys to Texas had been the right thing in the first place, and what their future looks like today. It would be hard to find anyone more qualified to address these questions than Liz Tyson, the programs director for Born Free USA and director of the sanctuary. A 41-year-old Brit with a doctorate in animal welfare law, she made arguments before Parliament that aided the passage, in 2019, of a law banning the use of wild animals in traveling circuses in England.

“Hi, I’m Liz,” the director greets me with a warm smile in front of the collection of portable buildings that serves as the sanctuary’s headquarters and where she lived for the first three of the four years she’s been in Texas. Although she’s wearing rubber boots and Born Free’s uniform of black shorts and polo shirt, Tyson, with her close-cropped hair and flawless English skin, somehow manages to appear almost runway ready, despite the sauna-level humidity.

Inside one of the portables, we pass a crew of staff and volunteers absorbed in measuring out the supplements and medications prescribed for each of the sanctuary’s three hundred residents. In Tyson’s cramped office, where a box fan labors vainly against the sodden heat, we dive into her lengthy history of animal activism. It started early. By the age of eleven she was volunteering at a wildlife hospital and knew she’d found her life’s passion. She worked in the Amazon on projects such as training former hunters to become ecotourism guides; she managed the Born Free Sanctuary in Ethiopia, caring for wild cats; in Palestine, she worked with spay-and-neuter programs for cats and dogs. Now she’s in Millett, Texas, overseeing the care of 140 baboons; vervets; and long-tailed, rhesus, and bonnet macaques rescued from labs, zoos, and abusive pet situations. And, of course, the remaining descendants of the sanctuary’s original occupants: 160 snow monkeys.

I ask about the gray area that the Japanese macaques—never lab or zoo animals, never pets, never abused—occupied. Hadn’t Arashiyama West been sort of a sanctuary all along?

“We’ve worked really hard to convert it into a true sanctuary,” Tyson answers. “And it had elements of a sanctuary before, but there are certain parameters within which a legitimate sanctuary should operate. That includes not breeding the animals, because we don’t want to perpetuate endless captivity of these primates.”

I take Tyson back to 1972, when the original 150 macaques faced either life in labs or dissection. Would Born Free have supported bringing them to Texas? “Probably not,” she answers. “Because translocating so many animals into such an alien territory is inherently dangerous and stressful for them, and you’re introducing this lifelong, lifelong work . . . bringing them over just created generations of the need for them to be cared for.”

Tyson then tells me that one of Born Free’s goals is to prohibit the trading of primates as pets in the United States. The nonprofit estimates that about 15,000 monkeys and apes are in domestic care.

My Search for the Snow Monkeys of South Texas
Young macaques playing at La Moca in 1975.Sarah Bird

With some trepidation, I finally ask the question that has brought me all this way: “Are there any descendants of Pelka still around?”

When Tyson tells me that yes, they do indeed have a descendant of the macaque I held nearly half a century ago, I am elated and eager to meet the offspring. But first, a tour. We start at the “quarantine area,” where new arrivals, animals with chronic health problems, and the elderly—including 110 geriatric snow monkeys—are caged in large, well-appointed enclosures and lavished with special diets, supplements, and the best medical care.

“Hey, Buddy, my sweet boy,” Tyson coos to an olive baboon. Buddy  scampers away from his baboon buddies, Dane and Elvis, to greet Tyson.

“Here’s Freeman,” she says, pointing to a long-tailed macaque ambling toward us. “Freeman was kept in the worst situation we’ve ever seen. He was kept in a dog crate for ten years and he literally never got out of that dog crate for ten years.”

Further on, Tyson calls out to African vervets and pig-tailed, long-tailed, and bonnet macaques, as she fills me in on each one’s afflictions: blind, diabetic, crippled by years in a cage, or, most heartbreaking, self-mutilation triggered by solitary confinement. For most of the residents, the sanctuary is the best version of assisted living they could ever have hoped for.

Beyond the quarantine area, a lagoon of a puddle covers the red dirt road with a mirror image of the Prussian blue clouds threatening rain as they rush in to clot up the sky. On the other side of the upside-down sky is a fifteen-foot fence enclosing 175 acres of Johnson grass, mesquite, and acacia, all an uncharacteristically luxurious green.

This, Tyson tells me, is where a Pelka offspring lives with fifty other descendants of the original crew. I am at the end of my quest. Though I still can’t make out a single pink face amid the foliage, I approach the fence with a number of foolish expectations. That the monkeys will crowd forward at our approach. That I will somehow sense which one is Pelka 65’s offspring. I even have a momentary fantasy of some meme-worthy interspecies reunion in which I am recognized as great-great-great-grandmother’s friend.

What happened instead is . . . nothing.

“There’s one there,” Tyson says, directing my attention to a lone monkey perched atop a mesquite tree. A couple others observe us from the roof of a distant cage. None of the three makes the slightest move in our direction. “So,” I mutter to them, far off in their splendid isolation, “you’re just done with humans.”

Tyson explains that staff members enter the enclosure only to feed the monkeys or provide medical care. “They’re interested in the wheelbarrow because it’s got the food, and they’re not interested in us at all. Which is exactly as we like it.”

Our tour is abruptly truncated by an ending too clichéd for Hollywood: big, fat, road-flooding drops start to pour down. It behooves me to hit the trail before that trail becomes impassable. With the red dirt gullies quickly filling, I turn onto the paved safety of I-35 with one question churning through my mind: What, in the end, had a half century of snow monkeys in Texas been?

You could call it a noble international rescue mission that saved the lives of 150 macaques and their invaluable genealogical data—or the thoughtless captivity and endless breeding of hundreds of wild animals. The snow monkey experiment was both a vital link in our understanding of primates and a training ground for the next generation of primatologists—and a failed business venture. Or you could call it a wacky, only-in-Texas escapade at the intersection of science and animal activism, a saga that heightened our appreciation of the complexity of animal lives and helped lead us to the understanding that wild creatures should be left wild.

What answer would Pelka 65 have given me? Would she have chosen to sentence her offspring to lives of endless captivity in a world as hot as it was hostile? Or would she have chosen for them never to have existed at all?

This is a story with no bad guys, only good guys doing what they thought was best within the context of the time and their training. And, for me, it’s a story without the fairy-tale ending of my childhood. Just a glimpse of a solitary monkey perched high atop a far-off mesquite tree, yearning either for the snowy heights of her ancestral Stormy Mountain or contented in the only home she’d ever known.

The answer, I suppose, depends on who is telling the tale.