• Elizabeth Alexander

Monkeying Around



People like to laugh at the antics of macaques in places like the Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur or the Botanic Gardens in Penang. I’ve watched these monkeys snatch bags of food and bottles of drink out of people’s hands, never to be returned, and used to think of such behaviour as amusing and cute. But you just have to take one look at their fangs when they feel threatened or thwarted, and you soon realise that these are wild animals, not Disney characters.


My fictional character, Pieter Reinaert, in Lies That Blind calls his pet raksasa kecil or “little monster.” Which is precisely how Jim Lloyd, no lover of Pieter’s furry friend, regards this deformed and undersized macaque.


But, in the real world, what’s to be made of this species of monkey? Are they really that dangerous and how best to deal with them?


Macaques are curious animals. My friend and I were leaving our book group meeting at a Batu Ferringhi condominium one day when we happened to glance through a window and see a macaque raiding a neighbour's kitchen. That might seem funny—until you see the mess these creatures leave behind. Let alone the knowledge that feet and hands that have trampled the streets and jungle picking up goodness knows what, have now paraded through someone’s home.



As I left Penang’s Botanic Gardens, after my first visit there in 2018, I bought a bottle of juice from a nearby shop to drink in the car. Placing the bottle on the bonnet so that I could retrieve my keys from my handbag, I heard an immediate thump. Looking up, I saw that an otherwise hidden macaque had jumped down from the trees to snatch up the juice. My immediate reaction was to shoo it away or try and wrestle the bottle back. One ferocious hiss from a mouth full of sharp teeth taught me that neither challenge were good ideas. I’ve learned since to give these monkeys a wide berth whenever I pass them on the street, especially if they have their young with them.


Photo 1173386 / Macaques © Jiri Cvrk | Dreamstime.com

We humans are mostly to blame for the macaques’ increasingly aggressive behaviour, especially whenever food is around. Their natural diet is fruit-based, although they can eat leaves, seeds, and tree bark. But go to any tourist area in Southeast Asia where these monkeys congregate, and you’ll find people feeding them biscuits, cakes, bread, and other sweet treats, as well as sugary drinks. This, apparently, has led to them becoming addicted to sugar and, like any addict, they need more and more to achieve a “high.”


Not surprising, then, tourist attractions put up signs asking people NOT to feed the monkeys. And yet people continue to do so, not realising how otherwise docile, adorable creatures become vicious predators out for their next “fix.” By amusing ourselves and ignoring the advice of animal experts, we’ve trained these monkeys to see us as sources of the best food. So, they’ll attack if they think you’re withholding anything edible from them.


I’m grateful to live somewhat away from the jungle, in a condo on the 7th floor that faces the sea. Marauding macaques are not a problem where I live. But I often see troops of these monkeys climb over the walls of nearby landed properties, going into people’s gardens to raid their rubbish bins if they don’t have latches on them. I fear for the safety of small dogs and children should they come between a macaque and what it sees as a likely source of delicious scraps of food.


Pieter Reinaert in Lies That Blind also engages in bad behaviour when it comes to his small pet, feeding the macaque human food and treating it like a surrogate child. Jim has the right idea: keeping plenty of distance between him and Pieter’s monkey and never forgetting this is a wild animal that, without Pieter’s intervention, would never have survived its deformity and size.