Monday, October 22, 2007

monkey revolt

In what has for centuries been the world's model for the peaceful co-existence of humans and their simian cousins, recent years have seen human-monkey relations go from bad:

Thousands of monkeys are invading government buildings in Delhi, forcing employees to arm themselves with sticks and stones in case they are attacked.

At least 10,000 monkeys are creating havoc in the Indian capital by barging into government offices, stealing food, threatening bureaucrats and even ripping apart valuable documents.

The increasingly aggressive animals swing effortlessly between the offices of the defence, finance and external affairs ministries and some have even been spotted in the prime minister's office.

"They are moving in very high security areas," says Defence Ministry officer, IK Jha.

"I am sometimes faced with groups of monkeys, big huge looking fellows," says government employee Surekha Rao.

"What I do is make some noise with my shoes so the monkey moves away."

to worse:

The deputy mayor of the Indian capital Delhi died on Sunday after being attacked by a horde of wild monkeys.

What is causing this unrest? The multiple consequences of a steady population increase, the effects of which have only been intensified by the very moral code that kept the peace between the species in times past:

Killing the animals is not an option because monkeys are a sacred symbol in Hinduism, India's main religion.

The authorities used to capture the monkeys and ship them to neighbouring states, but this is no longer possible because other areas are now being over populated with monkeys.

But as we know, the monkeys are not the only ones with a population problem:

Animal rights activists say the main problem is not the rising number of monkeys but the growing population of humans.

"We have encroached on their homelands, we have taken away their fruits, we have reduced their water sources and we are trapping them from their home range, from their forests, so they are coming to urban areas," says rights activist Iqbal Malik.

Overpopulation, deforestation, the ravenous overconsumption of some natural resources combined with the careless waste of others -- aka the daily consequences of modern society -- not only affect both humans and monkeys, but often in the same ways. The abandonment of agriculture and the rush to the city, which has long been a popular pasttime in Europe and North America, is catching on in the modernizing Asian nations as well. Civilization, apparently, demands it. Like humans, monkeys have been forced to adapt to the changing times. They have been forced by humans.

Before 1978, India was the largest exporter of rhesus monkeys for biomedical research. The monkey excess was simply rounded up and sold off to feed the needs of science, of which the U.S. was the biggest beneficiary. When evidence mounted that the U.S. military was violating a trade agreement banning non-medical experimentation by subjecting monkeys to nuclear testing, Hindu morality (and respect for the law) demanded that India close up shop. But the damage had been done.
A haphazard trapping of 'individuals' from troops led to what Malik calls "chaotic fissioning" where monkeys later formed single units for safety. This resulted in the subgroups requiring more space.

Psychologically, they changed. "Suckling youngsters separated from their mothers became depressed, while the mothers got more aggressive," says Malik. And dwindling forest cover encouraged them to move to towns, where abundant food would help them breed well.

The monkeys became modern individuals. Rootless, alienated from its traditional ways of life, the new monkey yearns for an ever more open country even as urban life becomes a practical necessity. Precluded from social advancement and material comfort by a Janus-faced racism that gives charity with one hand while signing forced relocation orders with the other, the modern monkey is constantly the victim of quiet attempts to keep him out of sight by a society that worships stone effigies of monkey heroes and prays to monkey gods.

All these attempts have failed, leading to de-institutionalization -- "Malik also attributes the increased monkey attacks on humans to the current practice of laboratories to release monkeys in urban areas at the behest of 'some NGOs'. 'Clearly they are not healthy monkeys, and they are essentially the ones that are biting people,' she says" -- indefinite internment, sterilization, terror campaigns (attempts to chase the rhesus away using the langur, a bigger monkey), and unless the problem can be solved soon, mass extermination.

The humanlike monkey god Hanuman, one of the most popular Hindu deities, is celebrated for his quick wit, courage, and heroism. But now he has been joined by a new breed of monkey-man:

Mass hysteria is sweeping across India's capital after reports of a superpowered monkey man, with hairy body and sharp metal claws, attacking people as they sleep on their roofs in the sweltering heat.


As the cry goes up in the night in one neighbourhood, people sleeping
atop adjacent houses begin screaming. Some jump from two-storey
buildings, fracturing their bones as they escape the phantom in the

Fifty such attacks were reported last night and 16 people were injured,
the Delhi police control room said today. One man was killed when he
jumped off the roof of his house during a purported attack, screaming,
''The monkey has come!''
In medieval European legend, the figure of the werewolf stands for the man excluded from the
town, or the community that grants him the status 'man.' As Giorgio Agamben puts it, the werewolf is "the threshold passage between nature and politics, animal world and human world," a mythological representative of the always-shifting political boundary between animal and human from which the politics of Western sovereignty derives: the power to determine the law by its very exception. Elsewhere he remarks fearfully that "the total humanization of the animal coincides with a total animalisation of man." Could the appearance of the monkey-man, in the midst of all this interspecies turmoil, be Hanuman's terrifying reminder of the difference between monkey and man, repressed for years by the discourse of primatology?

The fact that the monkey-man is also a cyborg, equipped not only with metal claws but also according to some reports able to turn invisible, increase its strength, and break locks through the use of "buttons on its chest" (see 'monkey-man' link), may provide a clue as to what such an old-fashioned interpretation is missing. We know by now that a human is not necessarily a man. But is a monkey necessarily an animal? Is our knowledge of monkeys any more conclusive than our knowledge of 'man?' What happens when the monkey modernizes along with the man?