Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bukit Timah Dog Attacks

These events actually happened a few months ago, but it's taken me awhile to be able to write about them coherently without going off on a tangent about mean people who have no respect for animals.

Back in January I was out at Bukit Timah, just having a pretty average day with the monkeys- collecting data and taking photos for identification sheets. Late in the afternoon, I headed up to the Visitor Center for a meeting with my advisor (Dr. Gumert) and some of the people from NParks. The meeting went smoothly, and Dr. Gumert and I left at around 7 PM. On the way out, we spotted the monkeys raiding a trash can at one of the condos near Bukit Timah. Although I'd been working with the monkeys for several months, I'd never actually observed the monkeys with Dr. Gumert, so it was nice to be able to point out some of the young ones that I'd identified and to have him explain some behaviors that I'd been curious about.

The residents of the condos were less amused with the monkeys' antics than we were, however. One of them sent out her puppy after the monkeys. I presume she was hoping that the puppy would chase them away, but instead he joined in the fun, gobbling up spilled garbage right alongside them. Frustrated, the woman called her dog back in. Right after that, a woman down the street opened her gate and pointed her dog toward the monkeys. The medium-sized dog came trotting down the street and some of the monkeys scattered, but a few of the juveniles were absorbed in their trash looting, and kept right at what they were doing. The dog charged right into the middle of them and scooped up a baby monkey, right into its mouth.

I was horrified. I knew that there was nothing that I could do about this situation- interfering would only put me in the line of danger: the monkeys would have no way of knowing that I was trying to help them, and would be very likely to attack me. As soon as the dog scooped up the baby, the air was filled with the sounds of loud monkey alarm calls (a trilling kraaaaa sound). All of the juveniles went high into the trees and seemingly out of nowhere, all the big males popped up- it was like watching the cavalry ride in. The males set in on that dog, charging, biting, slashing, grunting, and barking. Then a female (the mother of the unfortunate baby) came streaking around the corner and dealt that dog a mighty bite on the backside. The dog dropped the baby and turned his attentionto fending off his attackers. Much to my surprise and great relief, the baby ran away and climbed about six inches up a gate before freezing, obviously still terrified. The mother ran to the baby and tried to pull it off of the gate but it took her several tries, as the baby was clinging on for dear life. Eventually the mother pried him loose and clutched him to herself. He grabbed onto her, and she ran away, carrying him beneath her. The male monkeys continued taking turns scaring the bejeezus out of the dog until it turned tail and ran for home.

Even after the dog was gone, the monkeys remained on high-alert, alarm calling and grunting and looking around for potential threats. "Don't look them in the eye," Dr. Gumert reminded me. Looking the macaques directly in the eyes is always a bad idea, as they take it as a challenge, but when they're already agitated making eye contact easily provokes them. My eyes swept toward the ground and on the way I glimpsed an adult male out of the corner of my eye. Apparently that was all it took, because the next thing I knew, I had a very angry monkey charging toward me, closing the twenty-foot gap between us in what seemed like a millisecond. I've been charged before, but never by such an outraged monkey, and I was scared.

My hands flew to my ears, an inexplicable reaction that I have every time I get charged by a monkey. I closed my eyes so that there would be no confusion about where my gaze was directed, and I backed up...right into a parked car. Now I was stuck between a pissed-off monkey and a huge parked car. I could hear the monkey's angry grunts right at my feet and when I peeked I saw a back with raised hair. I slowly edged toward Dr. Gumert, and he placed his long umbrella firmly on the ground between the monkey and me (I usually carry a stick for this purpose, but didn't have it this time because we were leaving a meeting). The umbrella thumping the ground seemed to break the spell, and the monkey grunted once more and walked away.

I scooted down the street and into a taxi at warp speed. I think I talked a mile a minute all the way to my flat, but Dr. Gumert was a good sport. When I got back to my place, I was shocked when I realized that the whole incident had lasted less than ten minutes. In retrospect, it seemed like my entire afternoon. I hoped never to see the monkeys that stressed again. I much prefer when they're mellowed out, like Nad here: I thought that was about the peak of the excitement that I'd experience with the monkeys, but a month later I was proved wrong. Dr. Gumert had brought guest speaker and fellow researcher, Dr. Noë, to NTU, and he wanted to show him what we were up to at Bukit Timah. So, one February afternoon the two of them met up with me along the bike path, where I was watching the monkeys. It had been a pretty typical day and the monkeys were just hanging around, resting and munching on fruits. It was all very calm for about a half hour and then I heard some rustling behind me.

"Is that a dog?" Dr. Noë asked.

Oh no. Not again. I whirled around and saw a mass of dirty brown fur rooting around in the leaves. For a minute I just thought it was one of bigger monkeys, and then I saw a dog muzzle. I backed away, and then spotted another dog further up the path. I pointed it out to the men, and they pointed out a THIRD dog. All three of the dogs were huge.The monkeys had been slow to react to the presence of the dogs, and I wasn't too surprised- I hadn't heard any of the dogs make a sound. It was as though they'd materialized right where they were. But the monkeys were well aware of them now, and were raising quite the alarm. The alarm calls mixed with the crashing of branches as the monkeys fled to the trees, and along with the dogs' barks, there was quite a cacophony.

The dogs didn't appear to be friendly, and Dr. Gumert advised me to pick up a rock. I still couldn't tear my eyes away from that dog rustling in the leaves- he'd been in the middle of a mass of juveniles, and they'd all taken to the trees rather quickly, but I'd seen him lash out at a few of them. I knew that there were injuries, but I couldn't determine whether they had all made it out alive. Keeping my eyes focused on the crazy scene unfolding before me, I stooped and picked up a huge rock. I mean, in retrospect, it was comically large. It looked like I intended to slay a dragon with it rather than fend off a dog. Two of the dogs took off running and headed down a nearby hill. When the rustling dog finally came out of the leaves, he looked straight at me and I clutched my behemoth of a rock a little tighter. This dog did not look like he wanted to play fetch. I was grateful when he turned away and trotted into the forest, away from the other two dogs. I turned back to the spot where he'd been rooting around, and my heart sank. In the leaves lay a twisted and broken little monkey. I made a strangled little sound and then reminded myself that I was with two grown men, both seasoned primatologists, and that it might not be very flattering if I started blubbering in the middle of the woods.

You can't see much in the video below, but you can hear the chorus of alarm calls in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

The men spotted the dead monkey about the same time that I did, and Dr. Gumert asked me if I knew who it was. I inched a little closer and was met with a resurgence in the alarm calls, so I backed off. I couldn't ID the monkey for sure, partly because it was hard to get to close without inciting a monkey riot, and partly because the monkey was pretty mangled. I was almost grateful that I couldn't provide a positive ID, because that meant that it probably wasn't one of the monkeys most near and dear to me- it certainly wasn't Kevin, Punk, Izzy, or Xerxes. (I wasn't going to share my morbid photo, but right when I took it, a butterfly landed on the monkey's nose and I thought there was something really sweet about that. The butterfly's wings are up in the photo, so it's a little hard to see, but you get the idea).

The dogs were gone, but the monkey panic continued. It appeared that the adult males had formed a protective circle around the little monkey's corpse, and they were protecting it fiercely from up in the trees. We didn't dare get any closer to investigate. After Sidious threatened Dr. Gumert, he determined that now might be a good time to go get some lunch so that the monkeys could cool off a little. I couldn't imagine eating, but I readily agreed anyway. Over lunch, the men talked about the rarity of actually witnessing a "predation event." It's really unusual for a person to witness a monkey dying for a couple of reasons. For one, predators often strike at night, and people are less likely to witness these events. Also, animals with researchers following them around are generally safer than other animals, because a lot of predators want to avoid humans and therefore will be unwilling to prey on an animal with a human in close proximity. Furthermore, monkeys in Singapore have relatively few predators. Cars typically pose more of a threat than anything else. As we all talked science, I felt my mind wandering rather unprofessionally over and over again to the same thought- "My poor little monkey."

After I managed to eat a surprising amount of my vegetable biryani (I had been hiking all day, after all), we decided to head back to the spot where the monkey had died to see what was going on, and to see if I could get photos of the monkey so that I could try to make an ID for our mortality data. The monkeys were still in the same spot, but to my surprise, the body was gone. Uma, one of the adult females sat in a tree, staring unflinchingly at the spot where the monkey had been killed. I usually try not to project emotions onto the monkeys unless they're making interpretable facial expressions, but I have to say that Uma looked decidedly forlorn. Keira, another female, kept creeping slowly to the spot where the body had been, and then darting away at the last minute, as though she'd seen a ghost. It was very bizarre behavior.

We determined that the dogs must have come back and carried off the corpse, and we decided to call one of the NParks rangers to alert him to the presence of the dogs, since they were certainly a threat to the monkeys and didn't seem too keen on people either. Before the ranger arrived, Dr. Gumert found the monkey's body on the other side of the path, back in the trees. We moved in to get some photos, but didn't get too close.

It appeared as though the monkeys had kept up the alarm calls since the initial attack. They had been loud and shrill at first, but when we came back from lunch they had tapered off and become quieter and less frequent. Just before the ranger arrived, the alarm calls went off the charts again, reverberating through the forest. I looked around and was frightened to see that one of the dogs had returned, but he seemed to be just passing by. The rangers arrived and took a look around. They found a nest nearby that looked as though it might belong to stray dog. They said that they would monitor the situation and would try to trap the dogs if they needed to, but that trapping a dog in monkey territory can be quite difficult, given that they're every bit as likely to end up inadvertently trapping a monkey and causing monkey chaos. The rangers left, and Dr. Gumert and Dr. Noë decided that they would go ahead and continue to hike around a little more of Bukit Timah, as they had originally planned. Dr. Gumert asked me to try to get a biological sample from the monkey if I could do so safely, e.g. if the other monkeys moved on and I was confident that the dogs were no longer around. He handed me a plastic bag and told me to just pull out some of the monkey's fur. I tried not to look appalled, and nodded.

I sat alone in the forest, which was finally quieting down a little. I stared at the monkey's body for a few minutes, trying to identify exactly what I was feeling (I later decided that the feeling was nearly exactly how I'd felt when I was 12 years old and my guinea pig, Oreo, had died). I cringed at the thought of having to yank fur out of the poor monkey's sad little body, but I tried to channel Jane Goodall and be brave. As it turned out, I never had to carry out the stomach-turning chore because a few minutes later, the air was again electrified with stress and alarm calls as a dog made another appearance. He strode up to the monkey, gingerly picked up the body in his mouth, and disappeared into the forest. I sighed deeply, and then got out of there. By that time about five hours had passed since the attack and for once, I'd had about all the monkey action I could handle.

The next few weeks were pretty rough. I think that some of the male monkeys associated me with the death of one of their crew, and they were standoffish for awhile. I could handle that, and tried to be respectful of their space, but one monkey simply did not want anything to do with me (if you guessed that it was Sidious, then you've been a very attentive blog reader). Sidious made my life difficult. He grunted aggressively at me for no apparent reason, and he charged me repeatedly, sometimes covering great distances just to scare the crap out of me. As I said before, I've been charged in my time with the monkeys, but in the past I've always been able to tell why- I was too close to an infant; I accidentally walked by a mating that I didn't see occurring behind a tree; I spent too long watching one monkey. This was totally different. Sidious was coming after me all the time, without warning, and for reasons that I couldn't discern. That's him in the photo below.
After a stressful few weeks, during which I developed a near phobia of Sidious, things slowed down again and Sidious returned to his normal, mildly disagreeable self. I breathed a sigh of relief and told Dr. Gumert that I was terrified to have him join me in the field again. During my time in Singapore I had witnessed two dog attacks, one each on the days that Dr. Gumert had joined me in the field. So far, there was a 1-to-1 correlation between being with him in the field and seeing a monkey in the jaws of a dog. No thank you.

I suspect that that little monkey wasn't the only victim of the pack of roving strays. Over a couple of weeks, Michelle and Fang also disappeared. They were both kind of odd- Fang liked to hang out on the outskirts of the group, and Michelle had some sort of mental deficiency and often became lost. I think that their odd, independent behavior probably made them susceptible to predation by dogs.That's Michelle below with the crazy eye and Fang below that with the gnarly tooth.
This was a rather distressing post, so I'll leave you with something a little more cheerful. Remember Catherine, the monkey with the broken wrist? When I first got to S'pore, she had an infant and it ended up dying a rather slow death (this isn't the happy part). Well, a few weeks ago, she had another baby and it's growing up healthy and strong! Catherine's been a very attentive and competent mother. Here's Mama Catherine and Auntie Julia doting on the sweet new infant. Now isn't that happy?


  1. So glad I found your blog - it's such an interesting read, even though this post was so sad.

    If you do see people letting their dogs loose on the monkeys (and poor dogs, it isn't their fault), you can make a complaint to the AVA about the owner. Pet dogs aren't allowed out if they're not on a leash.

  2. I'm glad that you've enjoyed the blog!!

    I do wish that I would've made a complaint about this woman, but I was so flustered at the time that I didn't even think of it as a possibility until probably a week later. I think if something like this happened again, I'd have the presence of mind to pull out my camera and push "record," which would give AVA something to go on. But man, that first time was pretty crazy!

  3. I'm sure - it would be super upsetting to see it happening right in front of you as well!

  4. It is the circle of life this is how nature goes