No matter where you are in life, you're "at that age." You're "at that age" when you crawl, when you sprout zits and when your biological clock goes off like a parking lot full of car alarms. I'm "at that age," but while my peers crave babies, I want a monkey. A monkey would never take the car or slam his door and turn up the volume on Marilyn Manson.
The best place to confirm my preference is at Justin and Yvonne Finser's house when Rocky makes an entrance. Like all babies, Rocky turns everyone into Jell-O, and when he hugs you tight and gives you that airy baby kiss, your heart melts, even if you have no more maternal instinct than a stapler. But Rocky differs from the average toddler: He's smart as a five-year old and carpeted with hair like a shag rug. For a baby chimp, he's normal.
In fact, he may be even better. Rocky has enough material to make a satisfying A&E "Biography." His TV appearances include "Baywatch" and Letterman, and he has more showmanship than many Daytime Emmy winners. But his 15 minutes are extending because Rocky is part of a "custody battle" -- further proof that it's not the animal kingdom but people we should be wary of.
Actually the battle is a property dispute, and it won't unravel until Sidney Yost has his day in court. The Finsers, 17-year veterans of the animal business and owners of Amazing Animals Affection Training Center in Umatilla, found that Sid, who worked at the school, had been involved in shady business. They subsequently had the Marion County Sheriff's Department escort Sid off the property without the 22 animals he brought into the Finser's 200-plus menagerie, Rocky included. The Finsers hope to keep the chimp and have said it wouldn't be for his lucrative film career, which they don't intend to pursue.
The Finsers love Rocky like a spoiled grandchild. He pilots their pontoon boat and even has his own pony. Justine, their 13-year-old daughter, spends all her non-school time with Rocky, and Yvonne says this young surrogate mom is the only person Rocky listens to.
A lot of people want that connection to apes. After all, we're family. Some people want a monkey because "their kids have grown and they want someone to take care of," Yvonne says. She's met people like me who prefer a monkey over an infant of their own species, who want a cougar to chase the neighbor's dogs away or a tiger to walk through Manhattan. It's people like us who the Florida Fresh Water Fish and Game Commission had in mind when they drafted new guidelines for ownership of exotic species, the strictest ever, and not just to protect the animals but to protect the people.
Folks who have no knowledge but do have the $35,000 it costs will get themselves a chimp, then be surprised when their sweet baby turns into a freaky, long-faced, 5-foot-4-inch ape with superman strength. Justin knows of a man whose chimp bit off his nose because he did not hand over an ice-cream cone quickly enough. You don't get this kind of surprise with a beagle. This causes people to abandon their pets, often to the wild. The new Florida guidelines are thus designed to make exotics a privilege, not a right. In fact, it doesn't take Lancelot Link to see that you can get a human baby a lot more easily than a chimp.
Yvonne agrees. With a baby, you don't have to document that it will have its own room, but a chimp requires living conditions that are sizeable, safe and sturdy, and with "environmental enhancements" like stuff to climb on, a pool and toys. And you can't get a chimp without first completing 1,000 hours of training over 12 months at a facility like the Finsers' where you learn how to read and react to them. You also have to pass a 150-question test, a test that has a 90 percent fail rate, and produce two reference letters from a qualified source. If you couldn't get a book-jacket blurb from your mother, you still could be put in charge of a baby.
Perhaps if parents were made to go through these hurdles, there would be better and fewer parents out there. But for all the bellyaching about valued families, it's quantity, not quality, that's first on most minds when it comes to kids. We treat them like produce, and produce so many that half of them rot away from neglect.
So one day all the prescreened ape people will have happier, healthier charges than the no- credit-check, zero-money-down parents of human babies, and Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter will be trying to hide the last bright one of us. And when the last bright one of us is Charlton Heston, it's all going to be over anyway.
And looking at Rocky, who would care? If they were all this adorable I'd be a day-care worker on Planet of the Apes any day. He's just at that age.