The Monkey Gazes Back

It’s coming up on the end of my third month here in the Monkeyverse. After all this time, all those long, grueling hours in the field, I can now add monkeys to the list of animals that I am intimately familiar with. I know their general life cycle, natural history, behavior, and can read body language. I can often tell individuals apart. I can track their movements and predict their actions with some confidence. Other animals on that list include dogs, cats, ravens, coyotes, octopus, wild pigs, moray eels, snakes, damselflies, sheep, horses, bees, and army ants. It’s been a…colorful career.

You’ll notice I did not include humans in that list.

But back to monkeys. In these past few months, I have seen more of the little tree-climbing, branch-dropping creeps than I had ever wanted. I have been witness to more bizarre and horrible actions than I had ever thought possible. I expected to learn a lot from this job, but not like this. My perceptions of monkeys has not been altered so much as reinforced.

I’ve said it before: monkeys combine the worst qualities of humans with the worst qualities of animals. Like us, they are greedy, selfish, irritable, cruel, and manipulative. They are also aggressive, dirty, clumsy, impatient, and ignorant. They show the predictive capability to plan out acts of mayhem for no apparent reason (ie, dropping a branch on an unsuspecting human or horse), but also the unawareness to foresee the consequences of their actions (ie, that standing on that same branch would cause them to fall as well). They show the logistic processes to acquire resources (using a shield to protect from wasps to raid a nest), but absolutely no empathy (using their own baby as the shield). They also seem completely ignorant of the concepts of life and death.

Schadenfreude meets stupidity.

The other day, I watched an alpha male raid a woodrat nest. Or maybe they were possums. Either way, he reached into a large bunch of dead leaves and pulled out a squirming, mewling pink baby. First he bit off the face. Not the head–the face. I know this because it continued to move and breathe while he skinned it and ate the rest from the stomach outward. The baby kept squirming but was unable to make any noise. The alpha took his time. It was a long couple of minutes.

Most predators will be sure to kill their prey before eating to ensure it does not escape. It’s not out of mercy–it’s simply easier that way. They understand that when food stops moving, it’s time to eat. But monkeys–with all their cognition and mental functions–can’t seem to tell when something is dead or not. I mentioned before how a few were confounded by a dead snake, still wary even though it was headless and covered in ants. But from what I hear, they generally keep food alive while they’re eating, especially when eating other mammals which they eat soft-parts first. Maybe they prefer food that’s still moving.

You can only watch something eat so many wriggling cockroaches before starting to believe this.

My point is, we’re witness to some pretty horrific acts on a regular basis. Even for the animal kingdom. Even for the jungle. Forget red in tooth and claw–this is red all over. Red on the face. Red in the hands. Red in our traumatized minds as we go home after watching a family of squirrels get eviscerated, screaming all the while. I can usually distance myself from the animals I study, generate a kind of cognitive dissonance, but this is hard to do when the purpose of your study is literally Anthropology.

Here, we’re not supposed to distance ourselves completely from the animals. We’re supposed to make connections. We’re supposed to project, even to anthropomorphize. It’s tricky, it’s chilling, and it’s dangerous. The monkeys are too human. I feel like I’m having some kind of Heart of Darkness-ish epiphany all over again, staring at these little bastards all day long.

I think I need a vacation.



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