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Jun. 07, 2012

And You Thought Pigeons Were Bad

by Sam Flatow

Click to enlarge images
New Delhi has a rhesus problem.

No, not Reese’s -- that wouldn’t be a problem, that’d be delicious. I'm talking about the rhesus macaque.

In India, it’s a tradition to feed monkeys every Tuesday and Saturday. Now, they have WAY too many monkeys -- monkeys that don’t fear people.

I blame the economy. How is an honest monkey supposed to find work in a time like this?

In the past, the rhesus macaques were employed as test subjects for scientific experiments which led to important discoveries such as the Rhesus factor, which is the + or -  part of your blood type. There is also the venerable position of monkey astronaut, but India’s space program may not be ready for that yet. They should take notes from Japan’s monkey employment program.

The Japanese are still scrambling to get accurate radiation data over a year after the Fukushima disaster. Most measurements are done by plane, but the more mountainous forests nearby are difficult to check -- I can’t imagine a modern robot being able to handle the terrain. And that’s where the monkeys come in. This May, scientists equipped wild macaques with radiation-measuring collars and released them into the mountains.

Now, before you get upset about endangering helpless animals, the area is already inhabited by plenty of monkeys and very little is known as to how dangerous the radiation levels are.  If these animals weren’t enlisted to help, they would be receiving the same amount of radiation without any data collection. The man responsible for the idea is a veterinarian at the Fukushima Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, and it’s a way to “monitor the effect of radiation on wild animals in the Fukushima area.” The truth is, there is almost no information as to how the Fukushima disaster has affected local wildlife, and this is a good way to learn.

The Japanese have a good relationship with their monkeys. In the mountains of Japan, the hot springs are popular places for humans to relax. The local macaques mimic their behavior, and, for a while, the two species shared bathing spots.

But soon, macaques began to compete for spa space. The response was perhaps the most humane solution to a pest problem in history: build the monkeys their own bath. Now there’s room for everyone! Yeah, a few fuzzy fellows make their way down to hang out with people, but it wouldn’t be much fun if they didn’t.



So what can we learn from the Japanese? First, you need to employ the out-of-work monkeys. Maybe they can do the easy jobs like cleaning litter or advanced calculus. Really, it doesn’t matter what they do, as long as they have some sort of occupation -- it’s the great monkey depression out here!

Next, if they’re overwhelming your city, build another one close by. Monkey sized, of course. Why would they invade a giant’s house when there is a perfectly reasonable sized one open next door? Well, the exceptions may be free food, which brings me to my next point.

There’s an old proverb that goes “don’t [feed monkeys] where you eat.” Feel free to feed the macaques as tradition dictates, just do it where you want them to stay--for example, a monkey city.

Do you see how this is working out? Employ the monkeys and pay them in fruit at the monkey city. Of course this will bring out a whole new set of problems when they demand the right to unionize, minimum wage, rent controlled apartments, and maybe their own representative democracy--a banana republic.
About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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