A few years ago, Terri Nelson and I went to the San Francisco Zoo, and came upon the Nocturnal Gallery. This is closed now, but it was a little building with glass-fronted cages with small primates. It was dark inside, with double doors so people entering wouldn't let in daylight. There were dim red lights. If you waited long enough, your eyes would adjust and you could dimly see small nocturnal animals hustling along tree branches, sorting leaf litter, and grooming each other. Most people didn't take the time, and went out again. We were alone with tiny primates.
Terri and I were spellbound. Bushbabies! Then we saw the mouse lemurs, infinitesimal primates you could hold in the palm of your hand, if it were allowed. We felt compelled to peer at them in case there was a still smaller baby mouse lemur clinging to its mother.
Then we spotted the aye-ayes, and were stunned with delight. Aye-ayes are rare and endangered, five and a half pounds of nocturnal weirdness from Madagascar. Few zoos have them. Aye-ayes eat grubs that burrow in decayed wood, so they fill the ecological niche of a woodpecker. (A big woodpecker. Given their size and rarity, let's say an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.) They have opposable thumbs and skinny witchy fingers, especially their middle fingers, which are ridiculously long, Edward Scissorhands long. In the Malagasy night, they tap on trees, listening with big bat ears for hollow sounds, and for a grub squirming. Then they bite a hole in the wood and pull the nutritious and no doubt tasty grub out with that long middle finger.*
In the dimness of the nocturnal house we could see the aye-ayes parading along horizontal branches, making daring leaps from one branch to branch, and pausing so we could drink in the spectacle of their crazy staring eyes, their disheveled fur, and those bizarre hands. They popped in and out of a wooden nestbox.
We had been looking silently for a long time, bewitched, when we saw a quick flash in the enclosure. It was a red bar of light that appeared for a second and then was gone. It came again. “Did you see that?” “Yes -- what was it?” We stared. Nothing. Then, again, from a different spot. We couldn't figure it out. Were there lights in the enclosure with the aye-ayes? Some kind of motion detectors? It flashed from a different spot. Then, gone.
It flashed twice, in the same spot. We peered and suddenly saw an aye-aye sitting on a branch. Facing us. Brandishing a large wrench.
“Do you see that?!” one of us asked in disbelief, and the other one hissed, “Yes.”
When the wrench was tilted toward a red light, it reflected a red bar of light from the handle. The flashes from different places must have come as the aye-aye paraded around with the wrench. The aye-aye manipulated the wrench thoughtfully, then jumped up and disappeared into the nestbox. When it came out, it had no wrench.We tried to figure it out. When one of the cages was being repaired, someone had left a wrench lying around. The aye-ayes had stolen it. They were hiding it in the nestbox. Clearly they planned a break-out. “They plan to use it to unbolt something and escape,” I hazarded. Terri showed a better understanding of basic primate thinking. “They plan to hit the zookeeper on the head with it and escape,” she said.
*There are no woodpeckers in Madagascar. Feel free to use this remark the next time conversation falters.