A human can pick around 80 coconuts per day. A trained female pigtailed macaque can pick around 800, while a male can retrieve well over 1000. But is it ethical to use monkeys this way? Consumers are now revolting against alleged animal abuse, forcing producers to ensure ethical standards.
A few weeks ago, PETA published a video and investigation regarding the coconut-picking monkeys in Thailand. The monkeys are abducted from their families as babies and then forced to climb up and down trees to collect coconuts.
The video, as it is so often the case with PETA, aims to enrage rather than to explain. Still, while not all claims made in the PETA investigation could be verified, the case seems compelling enough: in some cases (not clear how many), monkeys used for this purpose are kept in inhumane conditions.
Here’s the thing though: we’ve kind of known this for a while already.
In 2015, Animal Place, a farm sanctuary in Grass Valley, California, told NPR the same thing — monkeys were exploited for coconut picking. According to one NPR-quoted source, it’s “difficult to find a coconut product made in Thailand that wasn’t picked by a monkey”.
But does this necessarily mean abuse? Despite allegations, Thailand’s Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit insists that there is no large-scale animal abuse going on in Thailand and these are only isolated situations.
At some point, farmers did train monkeys to harvest coconuts, the minister admitted said, but only on a small scale as they are intended as tourist attractions rather than a way of farming coconuts.
According to Leslie Sponsel, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Hawaii wh,o along with his wife, Dr. Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel, has studied monkey-human relationships in Thailand, this abuse is not widespread, and monkeys are more like pets helping impoverished families get by, picking coconuts. Meanwhile, according to PETA, at least 8 farms were found to use monkeys to pick coconuts for export.
When this was previously reported by NPR, there was no big backlash; now, it’s different. Several large retailers in the US and Europe have removed products from farms using this practice almost overnight, a testament to how much stronger the public sentiment is against animal cruelty.
“As part of our animal welfare policy, we have committed to never knowingly sell any products sourced from monkey labor,” said UK retailer Waitrose in a statement. “As an ethical retailer, we do not permit the use of monkey labor to source ingredients for our products,” another British retailer, Co-op, also said.
Animal labor and ethics
The history of using animals for work is as old as agriculture, if not older. Many millions of animals are used for work around the world. In some cases, the animals are loved and cared for, while in others, we’re essentially talking about animal abuse.
When it comes to wild animals, using them for labor is rarely if ever considered acceptable, but the range of what is acceptable also depends on cultural and traditional influences.
But if we take this case as an example, public opinion about what’s ethical is slowly outweighing tradition. The backlash against monkey-picked coconuts was largely driven by retailers pandering to their eco-conscious customers, and that category is growing more every year. For instance, according to the Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the U.K. quadrupled to 600,000 between 2014 to 2019.
What constitutes animal abuse remains a complex ethical conundrum. Is there something inherently different in using monkeys over, say, horses or donkeys for work? It’s hard to draw firm lines, but at least in this case, consumers have had their say: it’s a no-go.
Animal ethics seems to be on the rise, and this is a good example of how consumer power can bring a positive change.
Thai manufacturers of coconut products have agreed with the government to set up a traceability framework that gives importers, distributors and supermarkets access to information on the entire production process, from plantation to shelf, to ensure that no animals are abused in the process.