The Monkey Island
by Mira Nencheva
We humans, despite history, despite nature, despite consciousness, keep doing strange things in the name of science and in the name of humanity.
There is an island we found 12 miles southwest of Fajardo- a small island barely 600 by 400 meters in territory, flat on the north side with a steep rocky hill to the southwest rising form the sea, reaching 35 m. The island is forested and uninhabited, except for the population of a few hundred iguanas (an invasive species from South America) and over 1000 Rhesus macaque monkeys (also non-native species) found nowhere else in Puerto Rico or the rest of the Caribbean islands.
Monkeys! How cool, we thought. But this is not a tourist attraction, and even thought the place is not exactly a secret, it is off limits to visitors. “Violator will be prosecuted” – signs warn. This probably explains why we were the only boat and the only people around.
We heard the monkeys’ chatter from the forest as soon as we pulled in the anchorage behind the island, and decided to pay them a short visit with our kayak, getting near to the shores and paddling along the shallows on the lee side without entering the island. We got near a small sandy beach and cautiously looked for the monkeys in the shadows of the thin forest. We waited. Soon a couple of monkeys appeared and sat on the ground in the distance glancing at us expressionless every now and then. A few minutes later, macaques of all ages and sizes started to appear from every direction, walking on all fours on the ground, jumping from tree to tree, and emitting shrill calls without any apparent reason. We found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of monkeys, sitting on the grown and in the branches of the trees.
Rhesus macaques are medium in size greyish, brownish r yellowish in color with short tails and red faces, native to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and southern China. They are the primates occupying the widest geographic ranges and the greatest diversity of climates and altitudes throughout Central, South, and Southeast Asia beside humans, surviving in arid open areas, thriving in grasslands, woodlands, and even in high mountains up to 2 500 m in elevation. They are also easy to keep in captivity. Frequently reproducing and multiplying in numbers, they are the opposite of an ‘endangered species’, considered pests, like rats, in urban areas in Asia where they go to look for handouts and leftovers from people, often steeling not only food but everything they find interesting.
Their abundance, resilience, easy upkeep in captivity, as well as the fact that macaques and humans are very close anatomically and physiologically sharing about 93% of their DNA sequence and common ancestor (25 million years ago), made them very popular to science.
“Rhesus macaques have been used extensively in medical and biological research on human and animal health-related topics. It has given its name to the rhesus factor, one of the elements of a person’s blood group, by the discoverers of the factor, Karl Landsteiner and Alexander Wiener. The rhesus macaque was also used in the well-known experiments on maternal deprivation carried out in the 1950s by controversial comparative psychologist Harry Harlow. Other medical breakthroughs facilitated by the use of the rhesus macaque include: development of the rabies, smallpox, and polio vaccines; creation of drugs to manage HIV/AIDS; understanding of the female reproductive cycle and development of the embryo and the propagation of embryonic stem cells.” (from Wikipedia)
Macaques have been launched in space both by NASA in 1950s and 1960s, and by the Russian space program in 1997, and became the first cloned primate in 1994. In 2001 the first transgenic primate carrying foreign genes from a jellyfish making him to glow in the dark was also created- the baby macaque ANDi (for ‘inserted DNA’ spelled backwards).
For the scientific studies and experiments conducted on U.S. territory many monkeys imported from India have been “used”, as well as monkeys from the colony conveniently located on the small island of Cayo Santiago, off Puerto Rico (an unincorporated state of the Unites States of America), where a group of 409 monkeys were imported and released in 1938 (the dawn of World War II, when many small islands around Puerto Rico’s main island were used for military training and other military activities). Today the colony is over 1000 free-ranging individuals, all born on the island. In charge of the colony is the University of Puerto Rico Caribbean Primate Research Center studying the animals’ natural behavior. These monkeys also supply the scientific need for experiments of the National Institutes of Health, Yale University, The University of Chicago, and Harvard University.
The question whether or not animals should be used for scientific research has been a controversial one in recent years. Some argue that for the purposes of medical advancement it is the right thing to do. Animals can be sacrificed for the good of humanity. Let thousands of monkeys get infected with diseases, studied and sacrificed if only one human life can be saved. This human life could be your child.
If everyone agrees that we can dissect frogs in schools in order to learn, and use lab rats for experiments, than what’s the difference? Macaques are just like rats, just another animal species in plentiful supply. But they are not rats, you might argue, nor farm animals “produced” for the meat industry. They are wild animals who remind us of us.
Those who defend animal rights would tell you that it is inhumane, even ungodly to use and kill another living creature for whatever purposes. Most of the scientific research done on animals is pointless anyway (they say), because of the physiological difference between human and animal. No matter how similar we might be to the primates, it’s a fact that different species have different reactions to viruses and disease. For example rhesus macaques carry the Herpes B virus which does not typically harm the monkey but is very dangerous and deadly to humans. So what is the point then to try and work out a vaccine for example, that will be effective for the monkeys, but ineffective for the humans?
The macaques we observed from a distance on Cayo Santiago were cautious but friendly with us, obviously accustomed to humans who come by boat on daily basis to feed them. They just sat around and waited, but we never got in contact with them or fed them. Some ate leaves and bark from the branches they were sitting on, some got nervous and quarreled briefly, which made everyone exited and agitated, running, jumping around and screaming, but a few moments later, they were calm again, going about their usual monkey business. Mothers were hugging babies, couples were having brief romantic moments, elders were scolding the young.
Their yellow-green eyes and solemn red faces appeared sad to us, but this was an illusion. We humans like to humanize animals and describe them in human terms. For example dolphins in captivity, who in reality may suffer, appear smiling to us, so we smile back and swim with them and kiss them. These monkeys, on the other hand, who appear sad to us (because we know their faith), are surely happy in reality. Unaware of their purpose, they are thriving: roaming free on their small island, which is their familiar home of many generations, a home devoid of predators, where food is not a problem, and the climate and the habitat are just perfection. They are unaware of the rest of the world beyond this island, of their roots, of true freedom and independence, of true wilderness, of India. For them there is no other option (as for most of us, who, even if aware, accept the present system, the imposed social structure and hierarchy, conditions and laws, and live “free” all our lives on our small islands of fake comforts and false purposes, owned and ruled like slaves by others, while the experiment goes on).