The snow monkeys who make their home amid the hot springs of Jigokudani Yaen-koen wildlife park are generally ambivalent about the growing contingent of photographers who have lugged their gear into their mountain sanctuary.
All except one monkey youngster barely 8 months old. With a response reminiscent of a human toddler, the baby snow monkey found a sense of security by burying his face inside his mother's cinnamon-colored fur coat.But then curiosity got the best of him. As he peeked out, he was greeted by the whir of camera motor drives, the flurry of noise chasing him back into his furry refuge. The crowd of human spectators offer a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs," along with declarations of "cute" and "cuddly."
And indeed the snow monkeys are adorable critters - perhaps among the most cuddly of any in the animal kingdom. So why then is the Nagano Prefecturate killing some 1,000 of its snow monkeys every year?
Wasatch Front residents familiar with winter deer problems along the east benches can probably identify with the government's response here. There are simply too many monkeys for the existing ecosystem, something that forces the monkeys to search for food in farmers fields and people's backyards. And when that happens, the monkeys are killed.
Animal rights advocates here, using a blitz of handbills championing the snow monkey, are calling the government's wildlife management of the snow monkeys a "slaughter toward extinction." And the international news media can't get enough of the story. Whether Olympic organizers wanted it or not, Nagano and the snow monkeys are inextricably linked.
In a perfect world, the Winter Games would be entirely about athletic competition. About downhill skiing and bobsleds and hockey and figure skating.
But the Olympic Games have evolved into a grandiose forum where political, social and environmental causes can and do attract the attention of at least some of the more than 8,000 journalists who attend the Games from virtually every corner of the world.
And that raises the question of whether predominantly conservative Utahns - many of whom still sport bumper stickers demanding "U.S. Out of the United Nations" - are prepared for the one-world, one-peace atmosphere that comes part and parcel with the 2002 Winter Games.
Utah Rep. Dave Ure, R-Kamas, represents Park City and Deer Valley. While a supporter of hosting the Games, Ure has become one of a number of legislative watchdogs who worry about taxpayers getting stuck with a big bill.
Now, says Ure, he wonders what else the Olympics will bring. "We welcome the athletes; and I'm prepared to say we may try to change some things to make the Games better for them.
"We'll bend over backwards to be hospitable and with voluntarism. But there are reasons Utah evolved to be the way it is. And we won't change that. Our challenge is to conquer, to overcome, with love and kindness - and I mean those words - the negative politics that seem to come with the Games," he said.
Gayle Ruzicka is head of Eagle Forum in Utah, a national conservative, family-values group.
"I think it would be wonderful if the homosexual groups, the pro-abortion types or others come (in 2002) and demonstrate" or otherwise make themselves known as part of the Games.
"Whatever they do just makes us (in Utah) look better to the world. I'm proud to stand up and say we're for families, that we have moral standards. We won't change. We won't allow same sex marriages" even if Utah is criticized for those stands, she says.
Officially, the Winter Games in Nagano are being celebrated on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They trumpet the Olympic idealism that the Games "will foster international dialogue and diplomatic solutions to all conflicts in an effort to bring human tragedies to an end," said International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch during Nagano's opening ceremonies.
Some of the causes are officially sanctioned by Olympic organizers, while others - like the plight of the snow monkeys - are relegated to drumming up attention through handbills thrust at reporters and by passionate orators using loudspeakers.
The most prominent of the officially sanctioned causes of the 1998 Games is the worldwide effort to ban land mines. Chris Moon, a former British naval officer who lost an arm and a leg while defusing land mines in Mozambique, carried the Olympic torch into the stadium during opening ceremonies, and he has become the official peace symbol for the Games.
Moon's selection to carry the torch was an unmistakable message to an reticent nations, including the United States, to ratify an international treaty banning land mines. "If this can energize public opinion in the U.S. it might make it easier for President Clinton to change his mind," said Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.
The United Nations has passed a resolution calling for a worldwide truce during the Winter Games, something that keeps with an ancient Greek tradition that all wars cease during the Olympic Games and that athletes be allowed safe passage to and from the Games.
That international truce apparently means little to the Clinton administration, which continues to make preparations for war against Iraq. The tension between the United States and Iraq is being felt in Nagano, where international and national Olympic officials have made repeated pleas for U.S. restraint during the Games.
But if that spirit is compromised, it will not have been the first time that politics have muddied the Olympic waters. The Olympics have a long and storied history of politics, from Adolph Hitler's snub of black athlete Jesse Owens to President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow in 1980 and the retaliatory boycott by the Soviets at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
In between, there has been volatile disputes between China and Taiwan, the result being that Taiwan is still not being permitted to carry its flag in Olympic ceremonies. And, of course, there was the terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic team during the 1972 Munich Games.
"There are not many events with the potential to grab the international spotlight like the Olympics," said Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard, a member of a Utah committee that will devise a security plan for the 2002 Games. That plan must guarantee the safety of participants from politically motivated attacks, but it must also recognize the fundamental American right to free speech.
And there's nothing like the Olympics to transform a local issue into an international cause.
Just ask the snow monkeys.