#3 | Monkey See…

When wild animals in cages, chains and diapers mirror our condition.
Monkey do: Our cousins are a mirror to our own humanity – or lack thereof.
A monkey avoiding eye contact, Ha Noi, Viet Nam
Today is just another day of your life. For as long as you can remember, you have always felt empty. Each cycle resembles the previous: eat, sleep, walk slowly on the flat ground, look at other monkeys who are minding their own business. From time to time, you cross eyes with another monkey.
At regular intervals, food becomes available. On such occasions, hunger strikes like a dart straight through the stomach, although you recently ate. So you get up from that one spot where you have been sitting all along, and pace slowly to that plate that has been prepared for you by someone else. After munching, leaving your plate unfinished, you pace slowly, back to your spot.
It feels like you have always known this tiny piece of square land. Yet, although you know the place like the back of your furry hand, it doesn’t feel familiar. It feels like a concrete cage with iron fences, in which social interaction is short of illegal. So, for the better part of your day, you dwell on the meaning of your life and dream of pastures green.
Today is just another day of your life. You are a monkey like the few others in your cage. You are a monkey like the ones that walk around your cage and look at you through flat, rectangular and opaque devices. At times, you see a bright flash of light as the tall monkeys giggle at you. At other times, these bipedal monkeys are accompanied by smaller, loud versions of themselves who like to throw stones at you, and at least once a day you remember.
You remember when you were still a baby monkey and that, while you were playing with your friends in the trees and canals, a group of smiling bipeds took a dozen of you away from your family. You remember wearing a diaper and dancing in the streets while chained to a table. You remember the loud city noises, cars honking, people shouting, children pinching your face and back. Then, you remember being transported in a dark moving cage until you joined the other monkeys in this tiny enclosure, but you can’t remember what it was like to jump from tree to tree, to forage for fruits or to engage in complex social behaviours.

Today is just another day of your life.


Ha Noi, Viet Nam is a city where we, tall bipedal monkeys, are aplenty. Evolving inside one of the most complex social groups that we know of, we need our entertainment and pleasure to be delivered whenever we feel like it; cinemas and street shows at all times, large religious festivities at least once a month, tuk-tuks that take you anywhere for cheap coffee and cheap tasty food available along every street; wifi vailable everywhere. Most of the year, however, the sky is dense and grey: Due to pollution and the humid climate, the sun rarely shines through and it feels like it might rain at any moment.

In the middle of the city bustling with honks where it is difficult to avoid being hit by a motorcycle (not if you are a local, though), a few gardens and lakes fulfil our need for green, such as the Ho Hoan Kiem or the large Ho Tay, so does the botanical garden, a 30 minutes walk from the old city centre, which doesn’t have anything else than old trees and a few plants – or so it seems at first!

It is raining. With only a few people roaming the small park, the place is eerily calm, and empty. We spot a few structures and upon closer inspection, we see these cages:  four-metres high, three-metres wide, a cylindrical one hosting four peacocks without enough room to show their colours, and a smaller, cubic one filled with monkeys.

We have seen these monkeys before, roaming free in the Mekong Delta south of Ho Chi Min city, where some tourists, although they were told to be careful, had their packed lunches stolen by the hungry mob.  In Ha Noi, our tiny cousins there are kept in dark, doubled-up cages, where they mirror our own condition by expanding from too much inadequate food, lack of social interactions, and zero exercise – their eyes left devoid of life. Most often sitting down and sedentary, they avoid eye contact and stare into the distance while holding the cage, in a mixture of reminiscence and hope. They are morbidly obese, and lack fur in places where their skin is bright red and sore.


Viet Nam has an incredibly rich biodiversity, mainly thanks to the warm and humid climates, access to mountains, rivers and the ocean. The wildlife includes 11,217 species of animals. Of those, monkeys are the most often seen by the average tourist. All species of primates in Viet Nam are threatened by illegal hunting and habitat destruction and, despite being protected by wildlife protection law, the capture of primates is ongoing. As a result, Viet Nam’s endemic primate species face critical decline as they are hunted mostly for their use in traditional medicine (where only their hands, feet and head are usually taken, the body left to rot) and for the bushmeat trade. They are also subject to poaching for the international pet trade. The uniqueness of many of the Vietnamese species attracts a lot of money and misplaced interests.

The most common monkey species in Viet Nam (and throughout Asia) is the rhesus macaque, which is listed as “Least Concern” in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is well known for its adaptability to a wide range of habitats: it has the widest geographic range of all non-human primates, ranging from the Himalayan mountains in Pakistan through to the Vietnamese coastline. Yet, as one would expect of any wild animals, captivity is not one of its natural habitats. Usually small (47-53 cm) and lightweight (5.3-7.7 kg), they are easy to capture and manage.

They are known for having highly social lives in large and complex groups of up to 200 individuals. As we have seen them in southern Viet Nam, they are very active and great swimmers and are usually active, loud and mischievous. The cage in Ha Noi is certainly a big change for them.


A young rhesus monkey is held in chains, has been fitted a diaper, on a street exhibition behind a sign in Russian, in Nha Trang, Viet Nam

Viet Nam is well known for its mistreatment of all animals. The WWF reports that nearly 10% of the wildlife in the country is threatened with extinction and Viet Nam has received the “F” grading by World Animal Protection for its poor animal protection laws. Incredible to see such a state of affairs in a country where the government seems to sponsor conservation protection and scientific studies of the ecology: laws which were enacted to set up Xuân Thủy Wetland National Park, four UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, and Hạ Long Bay and Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Parks. The last two are also designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In 2016, one of many other videos surfaced on Youtube showing the “business as usual” of having monkeys in chains on the streets. A few weeks prior to visiting Ha Noi, we were in Nha Trang, the main tourist destination on Viet Nam’s coast, filled with Russian and Chinese tourists. Here, we saw a baby rhesus monkey kept in chains and wearing a diaper to entertain the street crowds outside of a massage shop. As recently as September 2019, AFP reported on “Monkey Island”, off the country’s coast, where “macaques ride motorbikes, lift weights and shoot basketballs in their own packed circus performance that ends with a monkey in a frilly skirt collecting tips from the audience. Elsewhere on the island, visitors eagerly place bets on a monkey swimming race to close out a morning of animal entertainment.” The few comments on the article show how much progress we still need to make on our own concept of “humanity”.


So what can we do? When drawing conclusions from this experience and taking them back home, let us not forget that change at the individual level, when compounded to a nation’s size, can transform the world. Here are three concrete steps that you can take immediately, in your personal, everyday life:
  1. Remember that no animals are here for your entertainment. Some can be friends, others can be acquaintances. Would you chain up a friend? As humans, we are the only species (that we know of) that has an understanding of its impact on others. It is our duty to ensure that our impact is positive; when you see a mistreated animal, take action. However small your action, it matters to that animal.
  2. When you travel, do not sponsor shows with wild animals (monkeys, elephants, big cats, etc.). If you become aware of tourist attractions that offer such activities, report them on big platforms such as www.tripadvisor.com and maps.google.com (where you can review businesses). Spread the word that these spectacles won’t be offered in the future.
  3. Regardless of their IUCN Red List status, no animal should be mistreated. However, some species are critically endangered, most often due to their use in traditional medicine (think China, mainly). Your best course of action to save them is to pressure your representatives into proposing and enforcing animal protection laws, and international trade laws. Check out the IUCN Red List, find an animal (the more the merrier) that matters to you, then write to your representative at CITES, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. Take small actions to make big changes.