They are the perfect employees and their bosses love them. They toil all day long doing highly hazardous work without a peep of a complaint. Nor do they ever show up late, need a day off, or take a vacation. And they never, ever ask for a raise, join a union, or go on strike. But best of all they work for peanuts.
Notify the Labor Board? The Mental Health Department? No need, because these workers are monkeys, pig-tailed macaques to be exact. And without them, the coconut business in southern Thailand would grind to a halt.
Coconuts are big business in Thailand; over a billion are harvested annually; and they are eaten in one form or another by nearly every one of sixty million Thai citizens daily. Coconuts are a big-export earner as well.
When a plantation full of fifty-foot, swaying coconut trees needs harvesting, dangerous is an understatement. The ripe nuts have to be picked, dehusked, and then transported to the market. This type of work is labor intensive, if not especially thought intensive. So finding young people willing to become professional tree climbers and coconut toters is nigh near impossible in this technological age.
It stands to reason that if monkeys can be trained to operate space capsules while conducting scientific experiments, surely it should be easy enough to teach them to climb trees and drop coconuts to the ground, which is what they do in the wild anyway.
But the main reason why coconut monkeys are so widely used is because they out pick their human counterparts four times over.
Mr. Somphon Saekhow of Suratthani province is a well known player in the monkey business. Twenty-two years ago he opened up a training facility to teach apes the high points of the coconut industry, and to date, has graduated over a thousand, hairy, coconut-picking experts. Somphon estimates that half the monkeys working in Suratthani province hold degrees from his institute of higher harvesting.
Training coconut picking monkeys is not a new idea. Records show this practice going back well into the 1800’s. Several other individuals train monkeys in Thailand as well. Somphon is the only one, however, with a campus that boards the apes while they learn the ups-and-downs of the industry. His teaching methods are his own, developed through trial and error and loss of flesh.
This roly-poly man, wearing an ever-present battered straw hat and smile has only a primary school education himself. Yet somehow he has the innate ability to understand the nature of monkeys. “To train these animals you have to be stupid and patient. I admit it. I am stupid. Stupid people are also patient.”
Somphon’s college could be the most exclusive hallowed hall of higher learning in the world, turning out only fifty graduates per year. Even a Ph.D. from M.I.T. does not guarantee lifetime employment as well as a sheepskin from Monkey U does. This makes it worth, if not its weight in gold, then surely in bananas.
Plantation owners and monkey masters; independents with a string of simians that contract themselves out to plantation owners; bring Somphon a young, two to three year old monkey for enrollment. Three to six months later they pick up a fully seasoned, indispensable, life time, working partner.
Youngsters are the easiest to train. And safest too, since they have yet to develop a set of fangs that would make Bela Lugosi blanch. Both sexes do equally well in his curriculum, but males are more desirable because they are bigger, stronger, and can work longer hours.
Macaques start fulltime work at five years of age, enjoy a ten-plus year career, and have a quarter century life span. The oldsters never retire completely because after such a vigorous life aging apes love nothing more than the fresh air and exercise from an occasional romp up in the coconut fronds.
All classes are pass-fail and there are no report cards. The drop-out rate is a measly 10%, mostly expulsions for fighting or getting too amorous with the co eds.
This primitive, primate campus; a simple, open sided shed; will not win any design awards. Individual, meter high stakes, driven into the dirt floor, are a combination dormitory room and classroom. Onto each perch is tethered a solitary monkey by collar and chain. There are a dozen such perches, each one just out of reach of its neighbor to reduce on monkeyshines.
Following the old adage; Monkey see, monkey do, the apes are arranged according to their skill level. This way they cannot help but watch what their next lesson is going to be.
The shed is festooned with coconuts; brown ones only, which are the ripe ones. They are jumbled into piles, hung from the rafters, and strewn all over the floor. This reinforces the main point; coconuts, coconuts, coconuts, and serves the same purpose as skeletons in a med school laboratory; familiarity with their subject.
Coconuts are a natural food for macaques, but in the wild they bite them off at the stems and do not know which the ripe ones are. This is murder on their dentures and also takes too long. The key to Somphon’s method is twisting, and not the dance. He teaches the monkeys to spin the coconuts, which quickly breaks the stems, and gravity does the rest.
The elementary course at Monkey U is Rotational Basics 101. Before starting this class, Dean Somphon has to acquaint his students with their learning environment.
Somphon begins by simply sitting on the floor in front of the young monkey’s perch. Between his splayed out legs he places an open box which has a coconut on a spindle attached across the top. Somphon sits there for hours spinning the coconut like a giant baby with an aboriginal Fischer-Price crib toy. Over the next few days Somphon inches ever closer to the monkey, all the time uttering sweet, calming sounds, “Good monkey. Nice monkey.” Finally he works his way right next to the monkey until he is able to simultaneously pet them while spinning the coconut toy.
Next Somphon leads the monkey by its leash into his lap. Actually it’s more like reeling them in, because the monkey jumps around like a terrified child resisting a dentist chair. Once it settles down, he ever so gently holds the monkey’s paws in his own and places them on the coconut. Together they spin it, round and round.
Apes do not have the longest attention spans and the twice-a-day lessons are only fifteen minutes long. The average monkey progresses to solo spinning within one month.
Somphon never hits or punishes his pupils. Nor does he reward them with food. The only encouragement is his soothing voice making happy sounds when they get their lessons right, or harsh sounds when they do them wrong or misbehave.
Teaching apes is not always as much fun as a barrel of monkeys. “Bites? Did I ever get bit?” In a wink Somphon rolls up his trouser legs and sleeves, and unbuttons his shirt to display dozens of monkey scars in all shapes, sizes, and depths.
“The real secret is love. Apes crave attention and affection. Give them lots of hugs, praise, and kisses and they will do anything for you. I love and care for them so much.”
Elevated Coconut Twisting is their next lesson. Since coconuts grow up in trees, Somphon has to get his pupils to raise their sights. He holds a coconut off the ground by a shred of its husk. The monkey, now trained to spin a coconut whenever it sees one, stands up on his hind legs and turns it until it falls. Somphon begins to introduce verbal commands like “aww (spin).” This class usually poses no difficulties for his pupils.
Ambi-Limb-Dexterous Spinning is another crucial skill to master. The monkeys must start using their legs for spinning because they are stronger than their arms. And they cannot do this when stationed on terra firma. So Somphon stands erect; which is not that high because he is built like Danny Devito; and holds a coconut at arm’s length. The monkey has to climb up Samphon’s body, hang onto his arm with a spare limb, and with its free extremities, spin the coconut until it falls. “Ahh-dee (Very good).”
Now that the monkeys can twirl a coconut with either hands or feet, Somphon must introduce the “climbing concept” to them as well as de program the idea that coconuts grow on Homo sapiens.
To monkeys, climbing comes as naturally as breathing and it does not take much prompting to get them scampering up vertical objects. It is now time to combine their inborn climbing aptitude with their new spinning skills.
To get this point across, Somphon developed a specialized instructional apparatus; a large wooden frame with a series of coconuts hanging from its crossbars. The monkey has to climb up the frame and, one-by-one, twist off each coconut, then climb down the opposite side.
With all basic picking skills now deeply imbedded in their monkey brains, the next step is to get them to operate in real trees. So Somphon ties clumps of coconuts halfway up a coconut tree trunk and the monkeys clamber up and twist them off. These coconut clumps are placed higher and higher until they are just below where the real ones grow.
Final exam day finally arrives. Somphon does away with his props entirely and takes his pupil into the field under actual working conditions. “Khun (up),” he calls. The monkey scampers up the trunk on a long leash faster than a person can walk. “Aww (spin),” he shouts, and the monkey sits in the branches and starts turning the ripe coconuts on their stems until they fall. “Ahh dee, Ahh dee !” Somphon croons. “Good monkey, good!”
“Long, long (Down, come down).”
When a monkey passes its studies, its owner is called to pick up his new, working partner. Somphon is always sad to see a student leave because he becomes so attached to them. “I try to train my monkeys extremely well so that their owners will never have cause or reason to abuse or punish them.”
A monkey’s education does not necessarily have to stop here. There are still lots of other skills that Somphon can teach them that makes work easier for their masters. An optional, graduate degree program is offered at Monkey U: Advanced Coconut Technology. This takes an additional three months to complete.
The biggest human occupational hazard in the coconut industry, besides falling out of a tree, is chronic back ache. So Somphon teaches his low-to-the-ground animals to do most of the bending. He trains them to pick up the coconuts and put them into burlap bags, hand the coconuts to the huskers, and fetch coconut tools for their masters, which include long, sharp knives.
Now the worst injury facing a monkey master is a stiff neck from guiding their partners way up in the tree tops.
Once the coconuts fall to the ground, the monkeys are taught to find and retrieve them even when they land in dense underbrush. Sometimes the coconuts fall into a pond and the monkey swims out to grab them like a birddog retrieving a shotgunned duck. The monkeys also help their masters carry the coconuts from the grove to the pickup trucks.
There are transportation skills that must me learned as well. No, Somphon does not teach them how to drive, but he does teach them how to properly ride in a pickup truck and on a motorcycle so that their limbs do not touch the hot exhaust pipe or engine or dangle into the wheels. And they have to know when to jump on and off.
“I can teach a monkey to do anything,” boasts Somphon. “And my smartest monkeys understand over a hundred commands.”
There is another knotty problem working way high up in the trees; the leashes often snarl in the branches. Houdini has nothing on these monkeys when it comes to untangling themselves without having to be rescued. Somphon’s amazing apes can tie and untie knots in seconds.
Sometimes a coconut tree has to be cut down. A graduate with one of Sumphon’s advanced degrees can easily tie a clove hitch around the top of the trunk so that the lumberjack can direct its fall.
All these skills save their owners considerable time and make them plenty of money. For an upkeep of 10 baht per day (around one third a US dollar), each monkey earns for their master close to 400 baht a day. Taking into account the tuition cost of 7,000 baht, each monkey’s career will earn over a million baht for their masters. Their value assures them good treatment and care from their masters
Somphon has been offered large sums of money to conduct a travelling monkey show for the big hotels in Phuket and Koh Samui. Television and movie people are always after him as well. “My heart is on my land and in my family coconut grove. I am not interested in doing anything else. But most of all I enjoy teaching my students, which he usually refers to as his children.”
One of his monkeys is more than a student; he is a star. His name is Khai Nui and he is the most famous animal in all of Thailand. Khai Nui was the featured act in the opening ceremonies of the Southeast Asian Games (a type of regional Olympics) that was recently held in Chiang Mai. The entire country fell in love with this clever animal after watching him head the parade and steal the show.
If you ever go to Suratthani, which is the ferry terminus for Koh Samui, drop in to see Somphon’s Monkey College. Visitors are always welcome, and he runs a terrific monkey show on the side. If you have trouble finding the Monkey College or Somphon Seakhow’s house just mention Khai Nui to anyone. Everyone knows where this monkey lives and they will point you in the right direction. You will go ape over his show.