The Blacklist: Century Old Balete Tree, Siquijor, Philippines.

Writing this article was a challenge. The topic of unethical animal treatment affects me at my core, but I also came to recognize that I have the privilege of coming from a country where standards for animal rights, for the most part, are taken seriously. However, before we get overly critical of those abroad, we should be aware that we also have animal rights issues at home that deserve to be addressed.

The locals on the island of Siquijor in the Philippines use the term “Black Magic” to describe the dark evils in the world. You feel something peculiar and indescribable in Siquijor from the minute you step off the boat and onto the island. The mystical island is one that makes up the network of the Visayas in the southern region of the Philippines. Siquijor is known for its pristine unoccupied beaches, aquamarine waterfalls, mountainous rainforest and witches. Just like in the Wizard of Oz, there are “good” witches, better known as healers by the locals, and bad witches who are conjurers of black magic.

In particular, there is a famous tourist attraction in Lazi known as the Century Old Balete Tree where healers practiced their sorcery rituals. Despite its name, the tree is approximately 400 years old [1]. The tree belongs to the genus Ficus and is also known as the Strangler Fig tree as it grows around a host tree and “strangles” it [2]. What’s more interesting is that a natural spring is found at the base of the tree and flows into a manmade pool stocked with foot nibbling Doctor fish (Garra rufa) that peck at your submerged feet [3]. All in all, it seems like an appropriate place to practice sorcery and the locals still believe that this tree is enchanted today.

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The Century Old Balete Tree – Photo credit: Franki Katz

Though this tree is beautiful and captivatingly mysterious, an evil force did indeed lurk beside its pristine waters in the form of irresponsible animal tourism. A local vendor had set up shop near the tree selling knickknacks and had several animals in cages available for viewing and taking photos. From afar, I initially noticed a few dogs, rabbits and birds in small cages with no padding underneath them – not the most comfortable or stimulating accommodation. However, the most gut wrenching part was seeing a juvenile monkey in a separate cage. Noticing that I had seen the monkey, the man approached me, and said, “Do you like? Baby Monkey!” repeating himself several times while I made it clear that I was not interested in bringing him any business.

I slowly made it closer to the monkey and I felt sick to my stomach. Looking into the cage, there was a lot to bother me about this monkey’s maltreatment. The video link here.

Firstly, the monkey was young. Primates are similar to humans in that they develop deep bonds between mother and infant. Mothers give birth and then teach survival and social skills to their infants. Depending on the primate, this can take a couple of months or several years until the infant is weaned off the mother [4].

However, if an infant is removed from its mother or its mother is killed before weaning, then the likelihood of survival is very low as it doesn’t develop these survival skills [5]. Beyond all of that, removing an infant from it’s mother is traumatizing for the infant. Some of these primates develop Prolonged Infantile Behaviourwhere they do not mature properly or alternatively they acquire antisocial behaviours. Some examples of this include excessive crying or vocalisation, a lack of social confidence, or a lack of secondary sexual characteristics [6]. Vast amounts of research have shown that removing an infant primate from its mother is not only traumatizing, but prevents the infant primate from developing natural social skills and even increases the development of abnormal and stereotypic behaviours (which I discuss in more detail below) [6,7,8,9].

Secondly, this monkey was dressed up in clothing. With baby monkeys who have been separated from their mother, wearing clothes is important because it helps to simulate when an infant grasps at their mother’s belly to provide them with warmth.  [10,11, 12].

In contrast, mature monkeys are very good at regulating their own body temperature when they are in their natural habitat. Forcing a mature primate to wear clothes actually makes it more difficult for them to regulate their body temperature [6]. Moreover, clothing restricts their freedom of movement and can also cause chaffing that results in rashes and infections.

The baby monkey was wearing a diaper in addition to its clothes. Though arguments can be made that not wearing a diaper will compromise the hygiene of the monkey’s home or cage [12], some new world monkey species such as the capuchin monkey engage in urine washing. This is the act of rubbing one’s urine on oneself, and it is a natural social and sexual behaviour for these monkeys [13]. By forcing a monkey to wear a diaper it prevents the monkey from doing what it does naturally. Lastly, as with humans, chafing and infections can be caused by wearing diapers frequently if they are not changed.

Thirdly, the cage itself was tiny. Most primates when kept in captivity require a large space to inhabit [7]. When the space is small, the animal can become stressed and develop a range of behavioral problems. The most common behavioural issue caused by this is stereotypic behaviour. Stereotypic behavior is defined as behavior that is repetitive and has no obvious goal or function [14]. Examples of such behaviors include pacing, head rolling, excessive licking, feather or hair plucking, overactive displays of aggression, and lack of appetite [15]. Having a larger space or having refuge areas allows primates to hide if they are stressed by something, such as the presence of humans [7].

There is a plethora of other details I could focus on, however this article would go on for pages. Overall, the conclusion that I have reached is that monkeys and other primates should not be used for tourism in settings similar to what I observed, where they do not receive the appropriate standards of care. Most of the time these primates have been taken from their mothers as part of the illegal trade of animals. You wouldn’t rip a baby apart from its human mother, so why do it to our distant cousins?

With understanding, however, comes the need to know what to do if you ever encounter unethical animal tourism. An important thing to remember is to never engage in an argument about animal rights in a country where animal rights do not exist. This could put your personal safety at risk.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are presented with the opportunity to feed, play or take photos with primates, always politely and firmly decline.

If you ever find an animal where the conditions of welfare are subpar, report it to an NGO such as the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) or Bureau of Animal Industry – Animal Welfare Division (BAI-AWD).

It’s hard not to judge an individual when we observe unethical treatment of animals. However, we must to realize we are privileged enough to be able to travel to developing countries where animal rights may not be a priority. Often the case is that individuals that exploit animals are unaware of other standards of treatment or welfare. It is also important to consider that many people use animal tourism as a source of income to support themselves or families.

I urge those travelling to Siquijor specifically to see the Balete tree, but not to bring business to this vendor by interacting with his captive primate. By doing so, you are allowing him to profit off of unethical animal treatment.

Currently, the possession of an endangered animal is punishable under the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act with a maximum of four years of imprisonment and a 300,000 Peso fine [16]. However, in this case, since this was a Philippine Long-tail macaque, an animal which is not endangered, the law allows them to be kept in captivity if the individual is capable of providing them with care.

If you want to make a difference in the Philippines, you can do so by donating to local non-profits that focus on changing the current legislature and pressure governments to conserve more natural areas or that rehabilitate abused or orphaned animals.

As easy as it is to criticize, it’s important to be empathetic and understanding of the situation. Animal tourism is a complex and evolving concept. Not everyone means to be a bad guy.

[1] Admin. (2015). Century Old Bate Tree – Fish Spa. Retrieved from: http://siquijor-island.com/century-old-balete-tree-fish-spa/. Accessed January 22, 2017

[2] Armstrong, W.P. (1999). Stranglers and Banyans: Amazing figs of the tropical rainforest. Retrieved from: http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ploct99.htm. Accessed January 22, 2017

[3] Piccio, B. (2014). Siquijors Mysterious Balete Tree. Retrieved from: http://www.choosephilippines.com/go/heritage-sites/1544/siquijor-balete-tree. Accessed January 14, 2017

[4] Napier, J. R., & Napier, P. H. (1967). A handbook of living primates. NY, New York: Academic Press.

[5] Hasegawa, T., & Hiraiwa, M. (1980). Social interactions of orphans observed in a free-ranging troop of Japanese monkeys. Folia Primatologica33(1-2), 129-158.

[6] Born Free Foundation. (2016). Zoochosis: Abnormal and stereotypic behaviour in captive animals. Retrieved from: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/zoo-check/captive-wildlife-issues/abnormal-behaviours/. Accessed January 2, 2017.

[7] O’Neill, P. (1987). Enriching the lives of primates in captivity. Animal Welfare Institute. Retrieved from: https://awionline.org/content/enriching-lives-primates-captivity. Accessed January 19, 2017.

[8] Seay, B., Hansen, E., & Harlow, H. F. (1962). Mother-infant separation in monkeys. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 3(3‐4), 123-132.

[9] Seay, B., & Harlow, H. F. (1965). Maternal separation in the rhesus monkey. The Journal of nervous and mental disease. 140(6): 434-441.

[10] Brent, L., Koban, T. & Evans S. (2003). The influence of temperature on the behaviour of captive mothers-infant baboons. Behaviour. 140(2), 209-224. Doi:10.1163/ 156853903321671505

[11] Schino, G. & Troisi A. (1998). Mother-infant conflict over behavioral thermoregulation in Japanese Macaques. Behavioral Ecological Sociobiology. 43, 81-86.

[12] Padulla, L. (2009). Explanation about diapers on baby chimpanzees. The Gap Project. Retrieved from: http://www.projetogap.org.br/en/noticia/explanation-about-diapers-on-baby-chimpanzees/. Accessed January 13, 2017.

[13] Phillips, K. A., Buzzell, C. A., Holder, N., & Sherwood, C. C. (2011). Why do capuchin monkeys urine wash? An experimental test of the sexual communication hypothesis using fMRI. American journal of primatology. 73(6), 578-584.

[14] Shyne, A. 2006. Meta‐analytic review of the effects of enrichment on stereotypic behavior in zoo mammals. Zoo Biology 25(4), 317-337.

[15] Keiper, R. R. 1969. Causal factors of stereotypies in caged birds. Animal Behaviour 17:114-119.

[16] Republic Act No. 9147. An Act providing for the Conservation and Protection of Wildlife Resources and their habitats, appropriating funds therefor and for other purposes. Republic of the Philippines.Retrieved from: http://www.gov.ph/2001/07/30/republic-act-no-9417/. Accessed January 25, 2017.

If any of this information is incorrect or needs to be updated, please let me know! Science is about learning from mistakes, adapting and moving forward!

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