When I’m trying to harvest coconuts on the beach in Miami, my main problem is that I’m not a monkey, which is especially irritating because I am almost a monkey. I have ears on the sides of my head, eyes on the front, strange dexterous hands, a tendency to rebellion and malice. But my legs are too long and my arms are too short and I weigh too much, so I can’t do the thing that monkeys do so well, which is climb trees.
Across Southeast Asia, pigtail macaques are trained to harvest coconuts. This has been going on for hundreds and probably thousands of years. In an 1883 account of her time in Malaysia, Isabella Bird says that the coconut monkey was “an inmate of most of the houses.” Lest we imagine a good-natured monkey retrieving a refreshing coconut for his human friend, here is her description of the process:
“[The macaque] is fierce, but likes or at all events obeys his owner, who held him with a rope fifty feet long. At present he is only half tame, and would go back to the jungle if he were liberated. He was sent up a coconut tree which was heavily loaded with nuts in various stages of ripeness and unripeness, going up in surly fashion, looking round at intervals and shaking his chain angrily. When he got to the top he shook the fronds and stalks, but no nuts fell, and he chose a ripe one, and twisted it round and round till its tenacious fibers gave way, and then threw it down and began to descend, thinking he had done enough, but on being spoken to he went to work again with great vigor, picked out all the ripe nuts on the tree, twisted them all off, and then came down in a thoroughly bad, sulky temper. He was walking erect, and it seemed discourteous not to go and thank him for all his hard toil.”
Anna Weber-van Bosse tells a similar story in her account of a trip to Sumatra in 1888. She calls the monkeys “apes.” “A band, to which a long rope was attached, was tied around the body of the ape, and then the animal was chased up into the tree,” she writes. “If he dallied too long over his work, the strap around his body was jerked unsympathetically. How the ape knew which nuts he was to pick remained a puzzle to me, but a fruit never dropped that was not fully ripened.”
In 1957, a Thai coconut farmer named Somporn Saekhow, who had grown up with these monkeys and had been distressed by their poor treatment, founded a training school dedicated to kindness. His First Monkey School is still operational, although Somporn died in 2002. A statement on the school’s website proclaims its mission: “The first task of the teacher is to make the monkey feel itself comfortable in its new surroundings. This is the most important and difficult part of training monkeys. This is established by taking good care of the monkey and never punish or hit it.” The training course takes three to six months, and the two important tasks a monkey has to learn are rotating the coconut so the stem will break and untangling a tangled line, because even here the monkeys are tethered.
In the videos I watched, Somporn does appear to radiate love and kindness. The problem is that he could not have controlled the way the monkeys were treated once they left his care, and it appears that abuses have continued. A recent petition urged Whole Foods not to stock coconut products sold by companies that used monkeys; a plan to use monkeys in the Indian state of Kerala, where there’s a labor shortage because humans are less and less willing to hazard their bodies, floundered over concerns about animal cruelty. A article on PETA’s blog claims that an angry coconut monkey in Thailand killed his owner by dropping a coconut on his head.
Even so, the practice seems to be spreading. The macaque’s facility is its misfortune; a trained monkey is much better at this job than a human laborer, picking between six and twelve times as many coconuts per day.
No doubt there are plenty of people who treat their coconut monkeys well. The PETA article is just sensational speculation. Still, I can’t find any account, contemporary or antique, of these monkeys gathering coconuts willingly or choosing to remain on the coconut estate when they aren’t leashed and restrained. History doesn’t inspire any optimism. Humans have always shown great enthusiasm for coerced labor, both human and non-human. Coerced labor is the rule, not the exception.
This is a hard problem. If the monkeys always have to be restrained, are they not unwilling participants? Would humane treatment make this practice acceptable, or more acceptable? They are not like dogs. And they are smarter than dogs, too—they’re our genetic cousins, which makes their servitude less palatable. But what if their employment spares poor human laborers a dangerous task? Why should we privilege monkeys over human beings?
There is an obvious solution: Let the monkeys go, pay human coconut pickers more, take steps to ensure their safety, and shift the cost to the consumers. But global capitalism does not tolerate such solutions, and this is as unimaginable in practice as it is simple in principle. The monkey story is a grim fable: We have created a system in which it doesn’t make economic sense to pay laborers anything, let alone a living wage, as long as there are people or animals who can be made to work for free.
Aaron Thier is the author of The Ghost Apple. His new novel, Mr. Eternity, will be published in August 2016