Monkey Business: Gaining Access and Rights to the City

Rashmi Singh* & Ajay Immanuel Gonji

Introduction

In a previous blog article, we had talked about some of our daily interactions with the monkeys (Rhesus Macaque, Macaca mulatta) in Ambedkar University Delhi, Kashmere Gate (AUDKG). We also narrated an incident where we observed, for the first time, certain societal aspects of monkey life. In this present article, we discuss how animals are not merely dependents and/or subjects of human agency but are themselves capable of exercising their agency to not just solicit resources from human beings but also to disrupt certain established structures and formal mechanisms of human society, especially in an urban context. This aside, we would like our readers to know that between our previous monkey article and this one, our personal encounters with the simians on our University campus has surprisingly increased. On three occasions we have had our coffees snatched from us, and on two occasions we were made to run for our lives. These incidents prompted us to joke that the monkeys might have read our blog article and aren’t particularly pleased with it. Regardless, we have decided to still go ahead with this subsequent article on the monkeys in AUDKG.

Resisting Human Control

As detailed in our previous article, monkeys on our campus have gotten so habituated to human-generated food that they almost never hesitate to snatch food from people. Food canteen and kiosks, playground and gardens are all places in the campus where it is not uncommon to see monkeys pilfering food and drinks from people, many times probing bags of frightened students in the process. Interestingly, it is the adults of the monkey troop which exhibit aggressive behaviour and are often the regular suspects. The sub-adults or juveniles of the troop are a lot “politer”, using a characteristic coo-call to request for food. Such behaviour is consistent with findings in the wild where juvenile monkeys are known to use coo-calls and hand extension gestures to request for food from human beings. Regardless of whether adult or juvenile, most students, especially those with food, are threatened by the sight of even a single monkey. At these times, the security guards of the campus often spring into action. While the guard’s primary duty is to prevent human intrusion and ensure that classes and offices function smoothly, they end up spending a substantial amount of their duty hours keeping monkeys at bay and ensuring that people in AUDKG are kept safe from the simians.

Having to interact with them on a daily basis, perhaps more than anyone else on campus, the guards are familiar with the movement patterns of monkey troops, and can even recognise specific individuals. Interestingly, the mechanisms adopted by our guards to deal with the monkey “problem” warrants mention. Observing monkeys in AUDKG for several years now, it definitely seems like the number of monkeys on the campus have increased. What also seems to be changing is the smartness of the monkeys and their evolving adaptation to human threats. At an earlier time, guards could be seen warding off the simians using a long wooden stick or lathi without much trouble. Just the sight or sound of a guard tapping the lathi on the ground would do the job. However, soon, adult monkeys of the troop, particularly males, began charging even at the lathi wielding guards. At this point, it became clear that there has to be a strategic shift in the kind of WMD (Weapon of Mass Deterrence) being used.

After a while, it became common to see the guards still using lathis but this time in combination with slingshots. Now, in order to prevent injury to both people and monkeys, the use of slingshots by the guards was only symbolic as no stones were actually flung at the animal. For a while, the monkeys did disperse every time they saw a guard take aim at them. However, this too proved to be ineffective as, within a short while, the monkeys stopped paying any heed to the sight of a guard firing his unloaded slingshot. The latest tool that our campus guards can be seen using are laser pointers! We must acknowledge that the laser pointers work like a magic wand. One beam is enough to send not one individual but an entire troop scrambling for cover. It is possible that monkeys that have never seen a laser beam before can be terrified by it. But guess what? The effectiveness of the laser pointers also was short-lived. The same monkeys which were once terrified by the laser beam were now quite amused by the beam shining on their bodies. Thus, the monkeys at AUDKG have time and again outsmarted us humans and resisted the many measures devised by us to keep them at bay.

Complexity of the Human-animal Relationship

While it would seem that the guards are fiercely opposed to the presence of monkeys in AUDKG, there are, however, instances when the guards share a different kind of relationship with the monkeys.  Sometimes, it does seem like there exists a love-hate relationship between the guards and monkeys. For instance, in one episode, one of the guards was furious at the monkey troop and was heard shouting, “aajao, batata hu tumhe!” (come, I’ll take care of you!). Almost instantly, another guard who was accompanying him replied, “rehne de yaar. Hanuman ji ki sena hai. Kahan jaenge bechare? Jungle kahan hain?” (let it be. This is the army of lord Hanuman. Where will they go? Where is the jungle?). It is worth mentioning here that, less than 2 kilometres away from the university is a huge temple devoted to the monkey god, Hanuman. An ongoing study by Oinam Linthoingambi and Dr. Suresh Babu of the School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University Delhi revealed that many monkeys that are residents of AUDKG often visit the Hanuman temple where they are offered food by devotees.

There are also other instances when the guards seem to be tolerant of the monkey’s presence. Every morning the troop leaves their overnight shelter in the trees to go out and forage in the nearby areas, and later in the evening return back to their shelter. Aware of this daily movement pattern, many times, the guards ask students and others to wait while the animals are given the right-of-way. These instances point to a complex moral dilemma where the monkeys are simultaneously notorious pests and revered guests (Narayanan & Bindumadhav, 2019). 

There are other groups of people who relate to the simians differently. Referring to the monkeys in AUDKG, one person was of the opinion, “they are practically on the verge of colonizing our campus – taking away our RIGHT to spaces!” There have been other times when efforts by the University administration to rein in the simians included hiring monkey catchers to scare the monkeys away, and a proposal to install dummy Langurs (a larger monkey which macaques are usually afraid of) in the University campus. Human attitudes and actions such as these are not uncommon as wild animals are often perceived as ‘out-of-place’ in urbanized spaces (Yeo & Neo, 2010). Many of us seem to be ignorant of the fact that, through a gradual process of disposition and displacement of the non-humans, humans have invaded wild spaces in order to pave the way for the creation of many of today’s “world-class” cities. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it is true that in many Indian cities, there exists a certain shared precarity between poor humans and non-humans in access and rights to the city, and both groups are often similarly excluded (Narayanan, 2017).

Conclusion

There are a few things that we wish to highlight through this article. Firstly, the city must be seen as a space that is not just inhabited but co-inhabited by both humans and non-humans who are entangled in a multiplicity of ways  (Hinchliffe & Whatmore, 2006). In fact, a vast majority of literature in animal geography is based on the argument that not just humans, but also animals have a right to the city. Secondly, animals cannot be treated as docile second-class citizens. While on the one hand, urbanization has made us humans aware of our ability to domesticate vast landscapes and entire ecosystems, on the other hand, it has also shown us how animals have avoided human subjugation by existing as “beings possessing subjectivity, agency and intentionality, active in configuring both the environment they inhabit and their interactions with people” (Yeo & Neo, 2010). Monkey business is perhaps not only about scavenging, stealing or terrorizing human beings, but is also about gaining access and rights to the city by resisting human actions and transgressing human-ordained physical and socio-cultural demarcations (Narayanan & Bindumadhav, 2019). Thirdly and finally, is it perhaps time we broadened our definition of companion species to include not just ‘desirable’ species such as dogs and cats, but also ‘undesirable’ species such as monkeys and other city wildlife?

Having tried a slew of measures to ostracize the non-human beings of the city, and often miserably failing, maybe what we require, at least as a first step to ease the human-animal conflict in our cities, is a change in attitude towards animals.

* 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.

References

Featured Image: Rashmi Singh

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