Animal Behavior

Beyond Animal Rights: Animal Politics

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Longtime Hit & Run readers know I have a running interest in encounters between human beings and organized animal communities: elephants, baboons, bees. (OK, the bees are a stretch.) I wouldn't say those animals are asserting rights—or that they have a moral concept of rights in the first place—but they do assert claims, which for much of human history was all we ever did ourselves. When those claims run up against the territories marked by human beings, the results look a lot like low-intensity warfare.

A recent case in point, as described by the BBC:

A troop of vervet monkeys is giving Kenyan villagers long days and sleepless nights, destroying crops and causing a food crisis….

They estimate there are close to 300 monkeys invading the farms at dawn. They eat the village's maize, potatoes, beans and other crops….In addition to stealing their crops, the monkeys also make sexually explicit gestures at the women, they claim….

The residents say the monkeys have killed livestock and guard dogs, which has also left the villagers living in fear, especially for the safety of their babies and children.

All the villagers' attempts to control the monkeys have failed—the monkeys evade traps, have lookouts to warn the others of impending attacks and snub poisoned food put out by the residents.

"The troop has scouts which keep a lookout from a vantage point, and when they see us coming, they give warning signals to the ones in the farms to get away," said another area resident, Jacinta Wandaga.

In less Hobbesian times you get something that looks like a negotiated peace, or at least a rough mutual understanding. One reason the rise in human-elephant conflict is so notable, for example, is because it follows a period when such violence was rare. (I should probably add that it isn't always the beasts who are the aggressors.)

Discussions of animal rights and animal welfare usually focus on nonhuman captives in human societies. But aren't these boundary disputes at least as interesting as dogfighting or foie gras? Such micro-wars imply something about human-nonhuman relations, even if it can't be reduced to a simple moral principle. Readers are invited to debate just what that something is—or, better still, to point me to any anthropologists or political scientists who are already studying these conflicts in a systematic way.

NEXT: Who Remembers Now the Destruction of the Armenians?

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  1. “point me to any anthropologists or political scientists who are already studying these conflicts in a systematic way.”

    Isn’t Jane Goodall the figurehead of a whole community of such people. I’m not involved with them, but I couldn’t help but take notice.

  2. Ah, it is, I see, Monkey Tuesday!

  3. they’ll have “rights” as soon as they figure out how to use rifles.

  4. just like humans.

  5. Robert Ardrey wrote an excellent book called the “Territorial Imperative” examining the instinctive nature of property and property defense in animals and humans

  6. c-a-j

    That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Not a bad determinant.

    CB

  7. Ironic, then, that humans use rifles to suppress the rights of other humans.

    Reminds me of Professor Farnsworth’s line, “Who needs courage when you have… a gun!”

  8. We must fight the monkeys over there before we have to fight them over here. Once they learn to use rifles, it’s too late.

  9. This is a harbinger of a future violent transition to a Planet of the Apes type situation. We humans must unite to stop it now. 🙂

  10. W,

    Relax! These devices require opposable thumbs. Advantage: homo sapiens.

  11. SPD,

    I use the opposable thumbs argument with my dog all the time, and she still wins. We’re all gonna die!!!!!!!!!

  12. I, for one, welcome our new monkey overlords.

  13. That is not my minkey!!!!

  14. Nothing a good monkey spanking can’t fix…

  15. Seems the Koreans disarmed their people (or at least their farmers) a bit prematurely.

    What are they going to do once the North Korean monkeys show up?

  16. “The troop has scouts which keep a lookout from a vantage point, and when they see us coming, they give warning signals to the ones in the farms to get away,”

    So the monkeys understand how to disengage. Is it possible that we could get some dialog going between these monkeys and the Pentagon?

  17. Do the lonely monkeys tap their right feet at the boundary?

  18. These devices require opposable thumbs.

    Um. SPD? Monkeys have opposable thumbs. It’s what makes them (and us) primates.

    That does beg the question, though. What is the crucial intellectual difference that prevents monkeys from picking up a gun habit? I wouldn’t ask them to invent one, but how much familiarity would one need before it could figure out how to wield a gun?

  19. If there was only a wall to keep those damn brown monkeys out!

  20. Monkey stew, anyone?

  21. We should not be too harsh on the monkeys. They are only trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. They should be allowed to work, and their little monkeys should be allowed to attend public school just like the rest of the children.

  22. That does beg the question, though.
    No, it doesn’t.

  23. Have the UN send the monkeys a stern letter warning of possible sanctions!

    Actually, I support the “gobs and gobs of mutilated monkey meat” solution.

    I like the human position on the food chain, I don’t really like to see it usurped anywhere. Well, maybe the idiots in Colorado deserve to get eaten by the lions they insist on coddling.

  24. If any of the monkeys are named Dr. Zaius, we’re in trouble.

  25. Chuck,

    By the 2nd generation, most of them learn to walk upright and wear funny hats.

  26. “Monkeys have opposable thumbs. It’s what makes them (and us) primates.”

    (processing…)

    Ah.

    (processing…)

    We’re fucked.

  27. It’s a mad house! A mad house!

  28. Where is Charlton Heston when you need him?

  29. Monkeys give Morbo gas.

  30. John Alcock’s textbook on animal behavior is the best primer out there. The passage on infanticide is a good warning about anthropomophizing animals. In the 1970’s researchers had lots of theories about infanticide as a population control method for the greater good. Then a researcher observed more detailed data and found that it was step-fathers killing step-children so their mates would get in heat faster. So, I would take talk about animal war with a grain of salt.

  31. Primates in rehabilitation camps have stolen and rode boats, painted decks, put up hammocks, and lit fires. I think firing a gun is within a chimp’s or bonobo’s ability. Aiming and reloading might not be. An inability to by or produce more bullets would limit their military threat.

  32. The ones we’re really at war with are bacteria. And Bacteria 1, Pretty Much Everything Else 0.

  33. Alan,
    I am currently living in harmony with my bacteria.

  34. Rights are the most important things in the world.

    Monkeys, however, don’t get them. Because they’re not exactly the same as us.

  35. Per Wiki, the male vervet tops out 7.5 kg. What livestock are these folks keeping that can be brought down by a 16 pound monkey?

    Unless the monkeys are working in concert? With some of them acting as beaters acting as the hammer to drive the livestock to their doom against the anvil of the hunter / killer monkeys.

  36. DAN T., YOU SILLY NINNY, IT IS NOT INSUFFICIENT SIMILARITY TO HUMANS THAT HAS REDUCED MONKEYS TO A SERVILE STATE. NAY, IT IS THEIR INABILITY TO KICK HUMAN ASS THAT IS THEIR DOWNFALL. ASK HOMO SAPIENS NEANDERTHALENSIS. . .OH, WAIT, YOU CAN’T–THEY’RE ALL GONE.

  37. In addition to stealing their crops, the monkeys also make sexually explicit gestures at the women, they claim….

    I dunno, sounds like any government organization.

  38. Makes you wonder if it would be possible to negotiate some sort of peace accord. How would the parties hash it out, or even signal acceptance to a deal?

  39. “jtuf | August 28, 2007, 2:59pm | #
    John Alcock’s textbook on animal behavior is the best primer out there. The passage on infanticide is a good warning about anthropomophizing animals. In the 1970’s researchers had lots of theories about infanticide as a population control method for the greater good. Then a researcher observed more detailed data and found that it was step-fathers killing step-children so their mates would get in heat faster. So, I would take talk about animal war with a grain of salt.”

    Other researchers have also found that the vast majority of child abuse and infanticide amongst humans is also stepfathers beating and killing stepchildren, so perhaps this isn’t the best evidence of the dangers of anthropomorphising.

    The monkeys with guns talk is a bit silly, but there is an extent to which humans have to respect animal claims when the animals are able to enforce them; belief in moral worth is less important. Driver ants routinely boot Africans out of their villages when they travel through, and are able to do so not because they are respected for intelligence or moral content but because they can seriously hurt people.

  40. Jorgen,

    Sorry, I should have made my paragraph clearer. The first few theories about infanticide said that animals committed infanticide because they were aultruistically trying to keep the population undercontrol for the greater good. Every aspect of this theory was incorrect, but it held sway because anti-natalists projected their own ideas on the animals. When a researcher collected detailed data and looked at it with a blank slate, he discovered the more accurate step-father explaination. The key is letting the data build a theory instead of jumping at the first analogy that seems to fit.

  41. “I like the human position on the food chain, I don’t really like to see it usurped anywhere.”

    I agree. Let the deep thinkers debate; meanwhile, the villagers should take a few Uzis to those thieving, perverted monkeys.

  42. Urkobold,

    Damn you, what did you do to the NEANDERTHALS?

    What, I say, what?

  43. Xenophun

    Just checked out that Robert Ardrey book called the “Territorial Imperative” on Amazon. Looks great – ordered a copy for myself.
    Good call.

  44. Isaac Bartram,
    He hooked them up with GEICO.

    Duh!

  45. In addition to stealing their crops, the monkeys also make sexually explicit gestures at the women, they claim.

    “The monkeys grab their breasts, and gesture at us while pointing at their private parts. We are afraid that they will sexually harass us,” said Mrs Njeri.

    This is kind of fascinating. Maybe sexism and misogyny are genetically heritable traits of primates. Also, this may signify that these monkeys are evolutionary ancestors of certain internet blog commenters.

    Also, I love this caption beneath the third picture in the article, and the accompanying photo: “The monkey squad are not very good at scaring away the monkeys”

  46. What’s needed here is a squad of monkey-fisherman!

    Maybe monkey fishing could be promoted to tourists?

    Where are the bush meat hunters?

    At any rate it appears that the “monkey squad” needs better weaponry than a basket of rocks. A few Uzis would make all the difference.

  47. Also, I love this caption beneath the third picture in the article, and the accompanying photo: “The monkey squad are not very good at scaring away the monkeys”

    Wow, you’re right. The caption is amusing on it’s own, but the picture makes it fantastic.

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