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Macaques - Our Wild Companions

Contributed by Dave Neale, Global Animal Sentience & Welfare Director, Animals Asia Foundation

It is my understanding that a companion animal is one in which a mutually trusting relationship develops. A relationship built on my provision of the needs, both physical and psychological, of the animal in question and their reciprocation in the form of companionship provided to me by free choice.

Only a select few species are likely to be able to meet this definition and one of them may be sitting at your feet right now.

I am confident that if I were to ask 100 people if they would agree with my ‘definition’ the majority would, based on experiences with companion animals in their own homes. The definition helps us to assess the suitability of species to be our companions and to discount those that we can not adequately provide for, or we are required to cage or chain against their free will.

In many parts of SE Asia, macaques continue to be sold as pets, individuals often ripped from their wild families to be thrust into the pet market, despite the difficulties for us to adequately provide for them in our own homes.

Wild macaques are born into established family units, made up of individuals with social

relationships that have developed over long periods of time and built on trust and respect for each other as individuals. They spend their time reaffirming these social relationships through acts such as mutual grooming, resting, eating and sleeping together as bonded individuals. They have evolved sophisticated methods of both visual and acoustic communication to convey both their emotions and their intentions to each other at all times, helping them to understand each other's changing moods, wants and needs and to act accordingly and appropriately during such social interactions. They are capable of great feats of problem solving with the ability to assess problems, flexibly come up with innovative solutions and to remember these solutions for future use. They even pass on these problem solving skills down through the generations through the process of social learning.

Removing an individual from their family and their wild home does nothing to stop that individual from wanting and needing to experience the life they were born into. No amount of care can substitute that which would have been so lovingly and unselfishly provided by their mums, sisters and aunts in the wild. No artificial environment could provide them with the complexity and learning opportunities that their wild forest home offered them, and no amount of market purchased fruit and vegetables could replace the rich and varied plant and animal diets they would have learnt from their elders to forage for in the wild, or replace the complex social processes involved in collectively deciding when and where to forage for their next meal. Even if it was possible that we were to provide them with some semblance of these natural conditions, it is still highly likely that they would choose to leave if we chose not to chain or cage them to ensure they remain exactly where we last left them.

With all this said, it must mean that macaques do not in fact make for good companion animals yet markets for their sale continue to flourish within many of their range countries, causing many thousands of individuals to suffer deprived lives on the end of a chain or stuck inside an unstimulating cage.

Having a companion in our lives is something that we should treasure due to the mutual respect that we and our companion have for each other. Having to cage and chain our ‘friend’ to force them to stay close demonstrates the inappropriateness of this relationship.

On International Macaque Day let us celebrate all the complex social, emotional and cognitive capacities of macaques and work to ensure that they remain in the wild where they truly belong.

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