Mr. Popoy cuts a tragic figure: salt and pepper hair; one arm resting on the protruding belly of one well-past middle age; one arm outstretched, fingers grasping for the warmth of human contact; and the forlorn, faraway look of a king who has lost his country.

His tragedy is in no way lessened by the fact that Mr. Popoy is not of our species: He is a gibbon, a member of the ape family.

I met the sad-looking simian recently when I visited the Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Rescue Center, which is located 44 kilometers – a two-hour tuktuk ride – outside Phnom Penh. Story is Mr. Popoy was once the other half of a gibbon pair – which mate for life, according to our tour guide – that had been rescued from the wilderness from poachers who hunted gibbons for use in traditional medicinal remedies.

For a while, Mr. and Mrs. Popoy lived happily ever after in their little kingdom, a large cage in Section 1 of the rescue center, presumably doing the things that gibbons like to do: swinging from tree branch to tree branch; flirtatiously lobbing fecal matter at each other in a mock snowball fight; perhaps even engaging in acts that could have produced little gibbon babies.

But the happy ending did not last, and life, or, rather, death happened. Mrs. Popoy got sick, and Mr. Popoy was left alone.

Keepers tried to find Mr. Popoy another friend, but other gibbons would not do: they were female, they were fertile, but they were most definitely not the Mrs. Now, Mr. Popoy can only find comfort in his caretakers and the tourists who walk through the wildlife center who are benevolent enough to find sorrow in his story, bold enough to brush the thought of monkey cooties aside, and brave enough to take his outstretched hand.

Photo: Julie Anne Ines / Flickr “Chronicles in Cambodia” (New photos added!)

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