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.

Meredith Small

Meredith F. Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University and the author of Our Babies, Ourselves; What's Love Got to Do with It?; and Female Choices. She has written frequently for Natural History Magazine, Discover, Scientific American, and was a commentator for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. She lives in Philadelphia.

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