From left to right, Camille, Gwen, Annette (with infant), and Catherine, sit on the sidewalk by a fence on Hindhede Road outside of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (BTNR). This group of monkeys lives along the border of BTNR and forms a community with the nearby human residents. The community is overall peaceful, but occasionally conflict occurs between the human and monkey neighbours.
Every now and then, you will read a newspaper report about monkeys invading the tranquility of a Singapore neighbourhood, stealing food and causing mischief and mayhem, while the humans rail against the monkeys and call upon the relevant authorities to get rid of them.
All this brings up the question: are monkeys really the culprits in this situation or are Singaporeans simply showing misguided hostility to the other creatures which share the same land as they do? Can humans and monkeys ever learn to co-exist peacefully?
The answer is yes. However we need to take the time to understand the concept of community, where individuals live together in society. We already know that co-operation and mutual respect are key to a thriving community. What needs to be done is to extend this concept to include other creatures which live in the community as well.
One of my favourite human-animal communities occurs in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (BTNR), around Hindhede Road. At the boundary of BTNR, about 60 monkeys live alongside several hundred people, and each day monkeys and humans walk side-by-side along the sidewalks, streets, and nature trails of this unique place.
I have seen many places where humans and monkeys live together, but this place is unlike many. Although the monkeys here occasionally conflict with their human neighbours (all communities have some conflict), for the most part it is one of the most peaceful human-macaque communities I have ever visited. I have been to monkey cities in Thailand, all the temples of Bali, monkey islands and eco-lodges in Kalimantan. But in these places, the monkeys are over-crowded and frequently in conflict with the people. At BTNR, this is not so. For the most part, it is a cooperative community, where neither humans nor monkeys try to exert power over the other. On a typical day, the macaques sit quietly along the sidewalks, grooming, playing and watching people pass. Likewise, most humans passing by appear fascinated, intrigued, and non-threatened by their monkey neighbours.
So long as this equilibrium is maintained, a quiet co-operation and harmony can exist between the two species. When conflict occurs in a place like the BTNR, it is usually a case of human ignorance, or sheer inconsiderate behaviour.
In other words, despite much public education, people still do not understand that the last thing they should do is to let the monkeys know that they have food. Macaques have completely different dinner etiquette from people. Humans horde their food, store it in a cooler and eat in small groups, e.g., family or friends. When macaques come across food, the entire community gets to know about it. Monkeys don't have lunch or dinner, they have feeding parties. When someone walks by with food, it's time to eat - for everybody.
Moreover, the monkeys have no idea why the person might consider the food in his bag his own. The concept of hoarding food does not exist in the mind of a monkey. They let out food calls and screams of excitement, all will come running, and the hapless human will feel he is being attacked or mobbed by the eager little monkeys rushing to the food party. The monkeys grab the food and run, but they don't see this as wrong - at a feeding party, it is first come, first serve. Not much different from a buffet in a restaurant. Get some before it's gone!
Other behaviour that disrupts the human-monkey balance occurs when people antagonise macaques or inadvertently threaten them. On occasion, I see people running at macaques, jumping up and down in front of them, getting too close, and throwing things at them.
It is not wise to do this. Just as you would not behave this way towards a human neighbour, why is it acceptable to do so towards your macaque neighbours? Acting in an undisciplined manner around macaques can cause them to act aggressively (this is their way of scolding) and this is when the conflict sets in. To avoid that, try to understand that there are certain behaviours that can provoke monkeys. Faux pas (violation of accepted social norms) include people pushing their young children towards baby monkeys, trying to stand next to a monkey to take a picture, walking past a mating pair, startling a resting macaque, and letting your dog run after a monkey. Just like your human neighbours, the macaque will react - angrily and threateningly.
So the bottom line - peaceful human-macaque communities can and do exist in Singapore. The integrity and cohesion of these communities begin with the responsibility and sensibility of the people living in them. We need to be aware of our monkey neighbours' different feeding styles and we need to be polite and respectful of them when we interact. At first, this may sound weird to most people, but honestly, how many people can say they live in a human-macaque community? It's not weird, it's amazing! People may not realise it but human-macaque communities here are unique to Singapore and it's something we should take pride in cultivating and maintaining.
Republished from the SPCA Bulletin May 2010 issue
by Michael Gumert PhD Assistant Prof. Division of Psychology, Nanyang Technological University