Monkey Business: Expressing Intentions and Emotions

Rashmi Singh* & Ajay Immanuel Gonji

A few days ago, an email thread on the student mailing group of Ambedkar University Delhi, Kashmere Gate (henceforth AUDKG) was particularly interesting. The subject of the discussion was not academic, political or social in nature, but was actually over food! Apparently, a plate of noodles was left abandoned outside the University canteen, which many students felt was a problem. While some felt that this was a matter of maintaining basic hygiene, others felt that abandoning food items or even disposing of it inappropriately would attract monkeys, and perhaps even affect their behaviour negatively. The students were of the opinion that the monkeys have taken a special liking to human-generated food and that this was problematic.

This blog article is inspired by our daily interactions with the monkeys at AUDKG. Besides seeing them interact with people of the University sporadically, we have had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time observing these animals at close quarters from the large-windowed office rooms of the Centre for Urban Ecology and Sustainability (CUES), that is neatly tucked in a quiet corner of the University campus. Almost on a daily basis, we see the monkeys foraging, resting, grooming, playing and even occasionally fighting. Our interest in their day-to-day activities is perhaps also because of our training at the School of Human Ecology, AUD where we are exposed to a variety of themes including urban ecology, political ecology and wildlife.

At AUDKG, monkeys are everywhere, so much so that their presence has become synonymous with campus life. Once a student was overheard telling a friend, “this university often feels like a monkey university where humans are visitors”. For several years now, the monkey population on the University campus seems to have increased, and cases of monkey attacks and food snatching have become all too common. Students at AUDKG are constantly sharing something or the other with their non-human companions. While during class they happily share their classrooms with dogs and cats that take advantage of the cool of the AC in summers and the warm coziness of a cushioned chair in winters, after class, they share their food, snacks and drinks with the monkeys, but are obviously quite unhappy about it. Almost on a daily basis, monkeys can be seen snatching human-generated food from both unsuspecting people as well those who are so terrified by past encounters with the simians that they quickly part with their food on seeing an approaching monkey.

Other encounters are less abrasive and involve monkeys peeping inside classrooms, perhaps wondering what these humans are doing, or simply with the expectation of finding food. Also, juvenile monkeys often hang around in the nooks and corners of the University campus, playing with their counterparts. As a matter of fact, many a time, the absence of the monkeys on campus feels slightly abnormal. On one morning in the month of January when temperatures dip quite a bit, the monkeys were not seen on campus all day, and a colleague of ours curiously uttered, “I have not seen any monkey since morning. Where have they all gone? Is the cold too much for them to bear?”

In our office space, watching juveniles hanging from pipes, wires and ledges, and even jumping from AC units to fire extinguishers are all familiar sights for us and our colleagues. Sometimes it feels as though the females in the monkey troop have designated our office veranda as a safe play area where their young can be left unsupervised. During winters, groups of monkeys can be seen in the veranda huddling together for warmth, and when the sun is shining, they can be seen grooming each other or enjoying a nap. However, it is worth mentioning that the monkeys also often spend their time peeping into our office space from the windows, or keep a track of our movements from the tinned roof of the office veranda. While most days there is a lot of monkey activity in and around our office space, one particular day was different.

Image 1: (Left) Monkeys huddling together for warmth in our office veranda; (Right) monkeys grooming each other in an area just outside our office space (Photo: Rashmi Singh)

Early one morning there was a lot of commotion in our office area, and it soon became clear that the monkeys were responsible for it. Few individuals of the monkey troop scrambled to our office space, while some female monkeys along with their babies could be seen a little distance away with a visibly tense look on their faces. Surely something had happened we thought but couldn’t figure out what. It was only a little while later when we reached the office that we realized that stuck in the fork of a large tree located in our office veranda was a male juvenile monkey. The monkey was perhaps in trauma because it could be heard crying out relentlessly. After a few minutes, the security guards at the University were summoned, and they pressed into action to rescue the trapped juvenile.

However, things turned ugly within minutes as the guards nudged the trapped juvenile out of the fork. The monkey troop was livid because they probably took offence to our actions and thought that we were causing harm to the trapped monkey. Precaution had to be taken to keep the large troop at bay and ensure that no human or animal was hurt. After the arduous effort of at least a dozen guards, and the supervision of Dr. Suresh Babu, the monkey was finally freed, although it was traumatized and injured, as it was later seen limping. There was a sense of relief not only for us but perhaps also for the monkey troop witnessing the entire rescue operation. It was fascinating to see how the other monkeys came near the injured juvenile and started touching him with much care and affection. Soon things settled down and monkey business resumed as usual.

The next morning when we reached our office, there was an unusual calm and silence in the office area. None of the monkeys, whether adult, juvenile or babies could be seen in action, although they were very much present. Soon we spotted a lone monkey in a sleeping posture on a tin sheet just outside the office veranda. On closer examination, we saw that the juvenile monkey that was trapped in the tree the previous morning was dead. While we waited for the guards and cleaning staff of the University to arrive, many of us at the office were glued to the office window. We saw several monkeys from the troop approach the dead animal, trying to elicit a response from the corpse. While some tried to nudge the dead animal, others simply sniffed its motionless body. Females who had their young with them could be seen becoming overtly possessive of their babies even as they held them in a firm grasp while walking past the dead animal. The entire scene playing out in front of us was akin to people paying their respects to a dead person.

Image 2: The tree in which the juvenile monkey was trapped. The individual was later found dead at the spot where the monkeys can be seen congregating (Photo: Rashmi Singh)

The ‘monkeys’ that have been the focus of this blog article are the Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta). While we may be anthropomorphizing the whole episode, it is nevertheless a fact that macaques, much like human beings, are a social species. Behavioural studies on macaques in Indian cities have shown that individuals of a troop are cognizant of social relations maintained by themselves and their troop members (Barua & Sinha, 2019). A troop of monkeys is not just a group of individuals randomly moving around. These monkey groups are composed of extremely complex bonds that determine inter-group aspects such as group composition, social hierarchy, access to resources (food and shelter) and mating rights; and intra-group aspects such as territoriality.

The monkeys at AUDKG are seen as “troublemakers” by students and staff. While we often interact with them on campus, these interactions are mostly negative. As a result, it is possible that some people, including ourselves, have developed a sense of fear, anger or hostility towards these simians. However, the incident described in the preceding section of the blog gave us a unique perspective of the animal. Watching the monkey troop fiercely protect their trapped family member, caress and comfort it when it was free, and later investigate its dead body were all moments in which we humans suddenly felt like we could relate to these animals. It made us realize that monkey business is perhaps not only about scavenging, stealing or terrorizing human beings, but is also about dealing with aspects such as care, concern, sympathy and loss.

An ongoing study by one of the Master’s students at the School of Human Ecology, AUD, supervised by Dr. Babu is revealing some very fascinating insights into the behaviour and life history of the macaques that have made AUDKG their home. While we may briefly engage with some of these aspects in a subsequent blog article, it is perhaps time to come to terms with the fact that the University campus, much like the city, is a shared space consisting of human and non-human elements such as dogs, cats, monkeys, squirrels, mongooses, bats, birds, and several other critters all of which are entangled in a complex web of interactions that influence each other.

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*Rashmi Singh is a Doctoral Candidate at the School of Human Ecology. She has been studying the pastoral communities of the Indian Himalayas for her Master’s and PhD research and is interested in understanding issues at the interface of human-nature entanglements using ethnographic approaches.