Into TGL: Gibbon Encounter

July 2, 2016

Daniela Ramos

In 1991, Pharanee (from Thailand) and William Deters (from U.S.A) moved to Thailand from Los Angeles with the plan to build a retirement home among lush rolling hills in the province of Tak in Northwestern Thailand, close to the Burmese border. They purchased a barren land to commence the construction of their home and farm, unknowing that their plan to retire would soon turn into a new career.

One morning, they were approached by a Hmong hill tribe man who offered them a baby gibbon for the low price of 500 Baht. They both agreed it would make a good pet and decided to buy it.

The baby gibbon was brought to their farm and that is when Pharanee noticed it was missing two fingers.

Curious to know the cause, she inquired the seller about it. To which he responded that ithad been injured when he shot the mother in the forest.

– “Why did you shoot the mother?”, she asked.
– “To get the baby”, replied the tribesman to Pharanee’s horror, upon the realization that she had just supported the poaching industry.

This was the beginning of everything. Naming their new pet Chester, she was the first and last gibbon the Deters couple ever bought and the ape that initiated them into this new and unexpected career they embarked on together.

During my stay there, I asked Pharanee what was what inspired her to start a sanctuary. Her response? “I don’t know! It just happened! all I wanted was to retire…”

I wasn’t sure what to expect of the sanctuary before arriving, as I’ve visited some in the past that bear more resemblance to a prison rather than a place where animals are supposed to be cared for.

After a very long, bumpy and congested ride from Umphang, Julia, Bernhard, Matthias and I were dropped off in the middle of a road that I can only describe as “orange”, with no clue where to go next.

Ten minutes prior, the driver had asked us “Ling, mai” (which translates into “monkey?”) and then he had told us to get off there.

Thankfully, gibbons aren’t exactly silent animals and they started calling (shouting, rather), so all we had to do what follow the sound and soon enough we were there!

Pharanee greeted us and showed us around. I found it very curious how she kept mentioning she wished she could retire, but every time she went near the gibbons, her eyes would light up as though she was looking at her own children.

The land was so spacious and the enclosures were built in a way that the gibbons could be safe while at the same time allowing them to live as close to nature as possible. Many of the cages are interconnected, allowing them to roam about as freely as possible and to socialize with other gibbons.

It really impressed me how she knew the names and stories of every single one of the gibbons. She would archive their photos, their stories, notes on their behaviour, who they were paired with (and if they weren’t, she would write “single” on their profile, which I thought was incredibly cute!), and more.

The love was reciprocated. It was like they could understand that she was the person who had chosen to devote the rest of her life to them; to give them a better chance after years of suffering caused by the tourism industry.

Pharanee explained to us that gibbons create a huge profit for many in Thailand. They get poached when they are babies, and in order to get the baby, they must kill their mother and father as well (gibbons are monogamous, and will likely stick to their partner for life). Once they get the baby they will sell it as a pet or use it as a prop for tourist to take photos with in cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Sadly, this industry has lead to the near-extinction of these primates.

But gibbons will remain cute and docile for a limited period of time. Once they grow up, they become useless and will often get abandoned or killed.

The gibbons at Pharanee’s sanctuary were rescued or brought in by people who decided to buy them and did no longer want them.

Many arrive severely wounded. Such is the case of George, who, when getting poached, fell to the ground from a tree and the right side of his body became paralyzed. He was later on kept in a zoo, where he was attacked by a bear in the enclosure next to his, leaving him astray of one of his arms.

Mimi’s case is another result of severe neglect. After attempting to escape from the cage her ex-owner in Bangkok kept her in, she came in contact with cables and was electrocuted. As a result, two of her limbs had to be removed.

William Deters, Pharanee’s late husband, had left a wonderful legacy, now in her hands and she somehow runs it with the help of staff and seasonal volunteers. I found it truly admirable how Pharanee was able to run it by herself. I got the impression that she tried to make the memory of Mr. Deters proud; and I am sure she has done it as must justice as possible.

We helped out in the cleaning and the preparation of food. That week, there was only one participant helping out. Her name was Kiri and she was from London. Kiri showed us around and introduced us to the sanctuary. She had been there for two weeks already and knew the ins and outs.

Just as in the human world, there were gibbons you can bond with and others who just…. not. I was able to create a connection with George (but I think he bonds with anyone who wants to give him attention :P). Next was Julie, who had a slight case of diarrhea and everyone shouted “ewww” when the incident occurred. I didn’t and instead told her it was all O.K. and that I sometimes did it too (just kidding). She then kept holding my index finger and wouldn’t let me live. It really amazed me how animals are able to feel embarrassment and sense compassion. Lastly, there was An, who loved me and Julia after we spent quite a while rubbing her back!

There were a few gibbons, however, who simply didn’t like me. Such was the case of famous Chester (the first gibbon in the sanctuary), who tried numerous times to snatch my camera. He is considered one of the “naughty” gibbons in the sanctuary (they have their own section to keep them from hurting the “goody-goodies”, but you still can’t help but love him (even though he won’t love you back).

The whole experience was incredible. Just being there are being awoken by the calls of gibbons was pure bliss. No alarms are needed here, as they will make sure to wake you up by “ooOOOOoooo”-ing as much as possible at around 5am (they want you to make their breakfast ASAP, after all :P, think of it as having kids… over 20 of them!).

Aside from the gibbons, just the feeling of being there surrounded by nature and its sounds was fascinating. I wish I could’ve stayed longer. Pharanee treated us as though we were her children; she cooked incredible, mouth-watering food, including vegetarian chicken for me, so I wouldn’t miss out! An experience I will not soon forget and one I will forever be grateful for!


Pharanee, if you read this – thank you for everything; for the cozy place to sleep, for letting us meet your fur balls, for the amazing food and for the experience that I’m sure the four of us will forever keep in our hearts!

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