How to view our macaques safely

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An on-going macaque attitude survey being carried out by Monkey Talk – Gibraltar on behalf of the Department for the Environment, is revealing that on a scale of 1 to 10, local residents’ fear of the macaques runs in the higher end. Indeed this fear is not eased when, despite educational campaigns by the relevant authorities, every now and again parents hear about unfortunate encounters where people and indeed children get bitten, some with serious physical injuries and inevitable longer lasting emotional scars.

However is this inherent fear justified? Are the macaques really that vicious? Or is our anxiety towards the macaques a result of our general lack of understanding towards these otherwise fascinating creatures?

My experience is that for the most part, the macaques can be much more predictable than your average pet dog, which contrary to the macaques may be conditioned by its particular owner and the way it has been reared. Still, the macaques are wild animals and whilst they certainly are not viscous, their daring and inquisitive nature allows them to frequently interact with people with undesired consequences.

The following guidelines will help keep kids safe when visiting the macaques or indeed should one encounter them unexpectedly:

Do not touch – the macaques remain wild animals, albeit they are used to people. However they are certainly not tame. No matter how docile they might appear casually sat on a wall they are not to be approached as pets! What’s more, even though habituated to people in general they are not familiar with anyone of us at an individual level and so touching them can result in threat displays (explained below) or even being bitten. Think of it like a total stranger coming up to and interacting with your child – it is simply not acceptable, even if your child may tolerate it, you as parent would be called to intervene.

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Do not feed – apart from it being illegal and unnatural foods being bad for their diet, hand feeding has the long-term negative consequence on the macaques who tend to lose respect towards people which then only serves for them to gain in confidence and in aggressiveness towards us.

Conflict of interest – whilst those that go to see the macaques are generally fascinated by them and go to take pictures and/or interact with them, the macaques do not necessarily enjoy our affection but have simply learnt to be tolerant of people in order to stand a chance of obtaining treats. Knowing that the macaques are constantly on the lookout for your food will go a long way towards ensuring your safety. Do not let your guard down – know what the animals are there for!

Food and bags – macaques associate bags with food – be vigilant! Avoid taking bags when going specifically to see them. Should you encounter macaques when you have food keep your food/bag in front of you where you can defend it better. Be assertive, if you can’t then move away.

Recognise their warning signals – when threatened by someone’s actions, the macaques will give a warning gesture which resembles a pouted mouth. This is known as the Round Mouth Threat (RMT) in which the macaque looks directly at the offending party with raised eyebrows to gain your attention. The gesture, which incidentally, is usually silent, but an occasional ‘pant’ means ‘No’ or ‘Stop’ with the macaque able to intensify the tone of the threat by leaning into the offender if their offending actions so requires it. If a macaque directs a RMT at you, you should stop whatever annoying action it is that you are doing, whether it is pointing at it, stroking it, staring at it and/or move back calmly to give it some space. This will reassure the macaque and it will stop displaying its threat gesture. Failure to do so would mean that the macaque, having pre-warned you will need to resort to lunging at you.

RMT
Macaque displaying RMT

Give them space – do not get too close to them and do not get in-between an adult and a baby. When agitated or stressed by overcrowding or being stared from close range macaques will start to fidget or scratch (Self-Directed Behaviours) even before they display a RMT. This is your pre-warning signal to stand back. Avoidance is the best strategy.

Announce yourself to them – do not try and sneak up on them – let the macaque come to terms with your intentions before you proceed to approach them. This will prevent startling them.

Avoid staircases and tight spots – macaques will get defensive and you will be putting yourself at risk unnecessarily. If you come across macaques in a tight spot pause to assess the situation then move away if you can.

Of course these guidelines are not an exhaustive list and there are many different scenarios that could arise when in and around macaques. There really is no substitute to spending time with the macaques and learning about them in a controlled environment with a trained professional. Recently Monkey Talk – Gibraltar ran a series of educational macaque outings for pupils of St Mary’s First School. As from September these will now be extended to Governor’s Meadow and Notre Dame schools. If you have found this article useful and would like to take part in an eye-opening macaque familiarisation outing with your kids, get into groups of between 6 and 8 and email me on monkeytalkgibraltar@gmail.com

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