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Indian officials send "notorious' monkeys to jail for life

The thief threatened children with bricks and ripped the buttons off shirts. He stole tomatoes from one home and snatched bread from another. Down the street, he briefly fled with a differential equations book and beat a calculator with his fist.

He was one bad monkey. And last week he was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes, inmate No. 13 at the country's only known monkey jail, where very bad monkeys are sent to live out their remaining years.

"He used to eat our guavas," Bhagwanti Devi said. "He would throw stones and try to hit us. Until we gave him flat bread, he wouldn't leave."

This jail is Punjab state's answer to the monkey menace in India, where killing monkeys is forbidden. Hindus consider monkeys sacred, living representatives of the monkey god Hanuman. Thousands of temples are dedicated to Hanuman, and many people feed monkeys in the hopes of divine rewards.

Monkeys have invaded government ministries in New Delhi, ridden elevators and climbed along windowsills. Monkeys slapped students inside a girls' school in a south Bengal suburb. A gang of monkeys in the city of Chandigarh ripped up lawns, broke flowerpots and yanked sheets off beds.

Some monkeys, mostly loners, have bitten people, injuring and even killing small children.

"Monkeys are very furious," said Ujagar Singh, the Patiala district spokesman. "They are dangerous animals."

Officials have tried many tactics to fight the monkeys, mostly of the pink-faced rhesus variety. They have told people to stop feeding the animals. They have given monkeys an herbal contraceptive mixed in with cashew nuts. Hundreds of troublesome monkeys have been sent to wildlife sanctuaries. Last fall, the Supreme Court even decreed that New Delhi should be monkey-free.

But nothing has really worked, not the court order, not loud music, not patrols of government buildings by leashed larger primates called langurs. Every few months, news of a fresh monkey panic is reported somewhere in India. Occasionally, people get fed up. Late last month, 59 dead monkeys were found, dumped in sacks along the road in Haryana state.

The monkey jail in Patiala, north of New Delhi in the Punjab state, is in a corner of the Motibagh Bir Zoological Park. In this vast country, someone else might have opened a monkey jail, but if so, officials do not know about it.

The Patiala jail is more like a single cell, about 15 feet wide, 15 feet deep and 12 feet high, with bars, chain-link fencing and wire mesh. A sign in front says: "These monkeys have been caught from various cities of Punjab. They are notorious. Going near them is dangerous."

None of these monkeys killed anyone. They're all basically thieves and pests. The first inmate was arrested in 1996, in the village of Sanam, after biting people as they shopped in a vegetable market.

Other monkeys stole clothes from nursing students and purses from women in an education administration office. One monkey stalked a housing complex in the Jalandhar district, stealing kids' lunch boxes and opening up water tanks, where he drank the water, bathed and defecated. Two monkeys were picked up from the chief minister's house, basically for loitering.

"It only takes one monkey," said P.C. Atalia, the divisional wildlife officer in the Patiala district. "The rumors spread from one house to another, and soon there's a panic. The way the rumors heat up, you stop your kids from going to school, you lock all your doors."

The monkeys are captured with trapping cages and tranquilizer guns. Once put in jail, they are not given names. Instead, jailers refer to them by where they were caught: Sanam Monkey or Jalandhar Monkey.

The jail is dark. It smells rank, like concentrated monkey. The walls are stained, and the floor is covered with peanut shells and black peas. Ten monkeys live here, the three newer ones in isolation cages. Some monkeys sit slumped against the wall, occasionally picking up a peanut. Others pace.

This place angers people such as Maneka Gandhi, an animal-rights activist who is also the daughter-in-law of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

She said monkeys can be rehabilitated and eventually released into the forest.

"You can't treat them in the same way as humans, as bad and good," she said. "You can't just jail them."