Scary Monkeys Threaten Town

As they have been taught to do.....

A recent article in The New York Times tells the scary story of over 8,000 macaque monkeys taking over a town in Thailand during the Covid virus. The citizens of Lopburi were used to these animals roaming the ancient ruins and the temples in the area where they were fed by tourists. But now, the tourists are gone and the monkeys, who are conditioned to expect an unstoppable bounty of snacks and lunches, are hungry and on the prowl. Although small by money standards, and cute by any standard, macaques are equipped with flexible hands and feet, scratchy nails, and sharp teeth. And they are clever and persistent, and they have become an aggressive threat to the locals.

I know all about these monkeyshines. As a trained primatologist, I once conducted a study of tourism and temple monkeys in Bali, Indonesia. My study was a comparison of one highly trafficked temple with a more peaceful place built far out on a spit of land where few tourists ever visited. For many weeks, I stood among the long-tailed (or crab-eating) macaques (Macaca fascicularis), observing the animals as tourists came through the temples, writing down everything the animals and the tourists did.

Macaque monkeys are sacred in Bali because they were the monkey army of Hanuman the Monkey God (a much bigger langur monkey) in the Ramayana epic story, the army that helped Rama find his wife Sita who had been abducted. At Balinese Temples, therefore, these monkeys are tolerated. At the isolated temple, they were lovely animals, calmly sitting together grooming and quietly walking about and looking at the ocean. They pretty much ignored the few tourists who came by. But the other temple was another story, a horror story.

The streams of visitors to that more central temple continuously pulled out wrapped packages of crackers, cookies, and candy and threw them at the animals. The monkey easily broke open the spoils and chowed down, and then they looked for more. Some monkeys jumped on people and rifled through their backpacks and purses while the assaulted and terrified tourist screamed for help. Those terrified voices filled the air as the victim whirled around trying to send the monkey off into space, which never worked. The monkeys just held on until it was clear that there was no hidden food to find. And as they clutched someone’s neck or hair, their tiny hands poked and scratched the victim, which was even more terrifying. Those who arrived in silk dresses and high heels expecting a day with the cute little monkeys left shaking.

The monkeys had another tactic for gaining food. They were especially clever at ripping sunglasses off of people’s faces and running away. When they did, temple guards chased them into the edge of the forested part of the temple and threw fruit at them to encourage an exchange of fruit for sunglasses. That plan worked well for the monkeys, which is why they did it over and over. Even though I was not a tourist and never had any food on me, I was frequently accosted in the same way. I stopped wearing sunglasses the first day but I was repeatedly, endlessly, jumped on, grabbed at, and scratched. I still have the scars.

By the end of the study, I was also scared of them, and that was really strange for me. I have observed four different species of macaques and as a monkey genus, I love and respect them. Macaques are the most geographically spread primate after humans. The 22 species are found in areas around the equator from Africa to Japan; they live in forests, on beaches, and in high barren mountains. Most important, they are tough and adaptable to any situation, even the incursion of humans into their territory. When the nuclear holocaust comes, cockroaches and macaques will own the earth. They are also animals with complex interpersonal interactions, strong kinship networks, and they exhibit a level of behavioral complexity that thrilled me every day I watched them. But these guys had been warped by humans in a way that had turned them into thieves and bullies.

Whose fault was that? It’s the fault of humans, of course. You cannot take a wild animal, give it the easy opportunity for lots of food (which means survival), and then withdraw that food and expect them to go away politely. It’s their livelihood, after all. We see the same learned expectation in Canada geese which hang around parks when they should fly south, in deer roaming neighborhoods eating all the plants, and in raccoons in our sewers. The biggest danger to wild animals is not the wild, but human civilization.

These Balinese macaques had been transformed into creatures dependent on humans, and it made them ugly animals. I knew if the tourists would just stop bringing food into the temples, the troop would go away and find something to eat in its natural habitat, or they would wander out into the rice paddies and chew on that human resource for a while. But then it wasn’t my country or culture, and so who I was to tell anyone what to do?

The people of Lopburi have only one option. Close your doors and windows if you have them and lock them tightly, especially the kitchen and pantry where food is stored. It will take time, but if no one feeds them, the monkeys will go away. But macaques are also very smart and have good long-term memories. So, when the first tour bus comes back after the pandemic, rest assured the monkey will be right there as the bus door opens. Let’s hope by then someone steps in and tells the visitors not to feed the monkeys because macaques are master recidivists, and survivors, when it comes to free food.

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The Real Reason We Need Each Other

Our Very Identities Rely on Interpersonal Interaction



The rush to open the economy up again, even amid rising Covid-19 contagion, has been fueled, in part, by cries that humans are social animals and they need to be with each other. We assume that as a social species — as most primates are — that time around others is a more “natural” state than being alone, and therefore essential. But no one seems to know exactly why humans have this driving need to be in each other’s company.

The idea that just being part of a crowd is necessary for wellbeing doesn’t cut it. Lots of animals hang out in groups — picture herds of wildebeests or schools of fish — but their innate style of grouping evolved simply as an expedient strategy for protection. These species interact with each other a bit, but really, the idea is to be in the center of that herd or school to reduce one’s risk of being eaten by a hungry predator. Human sociality sometimes has that same herd effect, but most of the time when people gather our sociality is very interpersonal and interactive typified by one-on-one exchanges. For some, it’s a mating game; the urge to hit a bar or go to a gym can be more about hooking up than finding someone to talk to. For others it’s distraction or entertainment; eating out with friends is now a national pastime. Human inter-personal interaction is also often about making alliances and fostering cooperation; we are socially intelligent enough to manipulate others to our advantage. But there is another reason humans have a driving urge to be with other people — to find ourselves. Only by bouncing ourselves off others do we realize who we are, and without that constant reflection, humans are bereft because we don’t know our value or our place in life. We need others for clarification, confirmation, and reinforcement of our very identities.

I know this because I live alone. Ever since my daughter left for college four years ago, I have led a pretty solitary life. Not a sad lonely solitary life — there’s always something to do and even while staying inside all day every day because of the virus I am busy with this and that. In that sense, my current life is not so different from the one I had 6 months ago. As a writer, I am home alone all day anyway and at the end of the workday, I usually hang out with only myself and watch TV and knit. Sure, I have friends and talk with them by phone or zoom every few days. And there’s also email. But most of the time, I sail through life solo, making my own decisions and experiencing life all by myself.

I don’t mind all this aloneness, even in the quarantined extreme version, but I often don’t feel like myself at some level. I sometimes say out loud, “I’d just like someone to talk to at 5 p.m.,” as if this were the only thing missing by living alone, but lately I have come to realize that my moments of confusion about who I am are rooted in the fact that there is no one to laugh at my jokes, tell me I am right or wrong when some conflict happens, judge whether as idea of mine is brilliant or stupid, and there no one looking at me but a five-year-old cat. That last might seem superficial, but it’s weird to get a haircut and have no one notice or get new cloths and wear them with no comments from anyone. At this point, I have no idea if I look good or bad, if I am funny or not, or if I have a brain in my head.

I have come to realize that social interaction is not just about being with others, it’s also about confirming who we are. Humans provide each other with reactions and those reactions help form how we think of the world and ourselves. Of course, that necessary entwinement also has a dark side. Negative comments from others can be painful and destructive to the human ego, but those unsetting times are outweighed by the positive reinforcement that we exist because others see us.

Social interaction is a major mechanism through which we find our singular place on the plant. And by providing that service to each other, we humans create a network of interaction and attachment that is the safety net of human identity. We become ourselves as we align with various groups, ingest various belief systems to which others adhere, and have our behaviors judged by others. This process of socialization is apparently evolutionarily important; judging, reassuring, and mirroring are so common and so universal for all peoples that these actions be selectively adaptive.

Of course, living in a culture that glorifies the individual is counter to this entwinement of our identities. A culture that expects everyone to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” not depend financially on anyone, and encourages each of us to live “independently,” might not be the best blueprint for a happy life for primates so dependent of the gaze of others. The current epidemic of loneness in Western culture that has critically affected the mental and physical health of those on their own underscores the misfit between those constructed Western values and our evolutionary heritage.

You’d think that with such big brains humans could easily manage to construct themselves, but clearly, we need a little help from our friends to get there.




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