Monkey Business: How Not to Get Bit by a Primate

Somewhere along our evolutionary adventure, we lost our sense of knowing where we stand on the scale of predator and prey. Those who claim that we’re on the top of the food chain should take a closer look at how other animals interact with us. In many circumstances, we’re treated like prey.

Want an example? Take a look at nearly every monkey-laden tourist site in Southeast Asia. Monkeys that weigh a fifth of our bodyweight or less have no qualms about jumping onto a human and stealing whatever it is what they want — often biting the human in the process. Would a human jump onto a lion bare-handed if a lion held some Twinkies in its paw?

While getting chomped on by a monkey sounds like a funny travel legend that’s spread from bunkbed to bunkbed between backpackers, monkey bites are the second most common animal bites in countries like India. According to the WHO, monkey bites account for 2-21% of animal bites worldwide. Many popular tourist destinations have animals infected with rabies and herpes B virus yet do not have the resources to treat these infections should you get bit.

After seeing people get bit by monkeys in Bali, Thailand, Costa Rica, and Malaysia — as well as having a close call myself — these are the handful of tips I’ve gathered.

selfie with monkey at batu caves

Fortunately, the monkeys at Batu Caves in Malaysia are not that aggressive if you don’t have food. In some places, you shouldn’t wear sunglasses and a hat near them.

Don’t feed the monkeys

As a general rule, feeding wildlife is not a great thing to do. When humans feed wild animals, the animals obviously gets them dependent and/or used to human interaction. The animal is then unable to fend for itself in the wild and may lack the proper nutrients and exercise it needs to stay healthy. Feeding animals bring these critters closer to roads or towns where the animal is unsafe or unwelcome. This is exactly what has happened in many of the places where you’ll find monkeys who have no qualms about running up to you and searching for a treat.

If you do have food on hand, monkeys are more likely to smell it and use aggression to get it — especially if there are competing monkeys present.

monkey eating watermelon

Don’t hold anything in your hands

Avoid carrying anything that could be confused with food. I held a yellow bag and a large long-tailed macaque monkey in Bali confused it with a bushel of bananas. We had an intense game of tug-o-war before he finally released it! This can also happen with phones, cameras (make sure it’s strapped around you), wallets, and anything else that looks enticing.

Tuck in your zippers

Monkeys are so clever, many of them are able to unzip a backpack and untie a knot. Keep everything zipped completely shut when you’re walking through a high monkey-density area. If you have a rain cover for your backpack, put that on over your belongings so that there aren’t any appealing zips or tabs for curious monkeys to tug on.

Dress minimally

There are anecdotal reports of monkeys stealing items from people (sunglasses being the main target) and holding them random until the monkey gets food. Imagine my surprise when a long-tailed macaque dug its nails into my toes and wrapped its fingers around my flip flop. Though I was able to keep it firmly on my foot, a Balinese man told me that the monkey planned to take my flip flop to another man who would help me get it back for a small fee.

In a study published in Primates, researchers observed this population of monkeys at Uluwatu Temple in Bali and found that this theft and bartering scheme was a skill passed from monkey to monkey and is part of the community’s culture. Basically, long-tailed macaques are capitalists. If you don’t have any loose items on you, the monkey will likely go for an easier target.

Keep calm if one jumps onto you

Sometimes, monkeys will jump onto a tourist and use them as a temporary perch. If you’re lucky, they might even comb your scalp for bugs. If you scream or make sudden movements, you might startle the monkey and provoke it to bike. Remain still and calm until the monkey is ready to move onto the next tree (or person).

Keep your distance

As with any wild animal, it’s best to observe their behaviors from a safe distance. Don’t smile at monkeys as showing your teeth can often be interpreted as a sign of aggression. Keep your camera away from their face where they might catch their reflection or feel intruded upon. Other tourists encourage monkeys to get close and climb onto them for a prime photo. This is asking for a Darwin Award.

Monkey see, monkey don’t.

Have you ever seen monkeys in the wild? What was their behavior like? Do you think it’s ethical for tourists to interact with them in such a close way? 


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